Portrait of the artists

Monday, April 16, 2001 at 1:00am

Rembrandt. John Singer Sargent. Vermeer. Many of the world's greatest artists made their names in portraiture.

At some point in the 20th century, painted portraits fell out of favor. Why go with a likeness, many reasoned, when you could have a photograph? Now, that's all changed, as people are rediscovering the category. Suddenly, it seems, portraits are popping up over mantels and couches as never before.

I've always secretly been a portrait artist, sneaking self-portraits and images of friends into my work where you might least expect them. But I was curious about people who developed their careers with a portraiture focus, so I contacted two artists who are thriving in the genre.

"Over the past two years, there's been a huge boom in portraiture," concurred St. Louis artist Ana Hartenbach. "I'm inspired by the huge jazz and blues scene here. I go out and photograph musicians, with permission of course, and paint from that, or I ask them to come to my studio. People really respond to these portraits. I also paint what I like to call 'pretty ladies.' It's basically composite images of my girlfriends, and I work their features to make them look more timeless. It stems in part from Gustav Klimt."

But Ana also works on commission, "It's not just the traditional wealthy, stuffy family that has the portrait above the mantel these days," said Ana. "It's young, 30- or 40-something couples with kids who are still under 10 or just emerging into adolescence. They want portraits that are more relaxed, more fun, often with groups of two to four kids who are interacting. People love a beautiful painting of children

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