In 1435, Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti set the course for how to best represent the human figure when he stated: “The movements of the soul are made known by the movements of the body.” This concept, where the inner life is revealed by the outer, had a tremendous influence on the painters of the time, and, though the statement has not remained part of today’s common artistic vernacular, the idea has resonated through the histories and is a reality in art today. The portraits of Utah painter Jeff Hale not only meet the age-old standard set by Alberti but also transcend it by capturing the distinctive character and individuality of each of his sitters. While every painting has the inimitable stylistic mark of this exceptional artist, each has a dimensional liveliness and distinguishing personality that is uniquely its own.
It is hard to look at Hale’s portraiture without appreciating his personal style. It is something, he says, that has grown from a love of artists such as Modigliani, a fascination with cubism and an interest in caricature. Although they are abstracted, the paintings have roots in a verisimilitude that is surprising. Hale chooses his models carefully, and photographs them in high resolution. From these images, he is able to distinguish identifying qualities that he then abstracts. “I don’t want a Xerox copy but an interpretation to capture the essence of the individual,” says Hale. “I want drama more than a straightforward portrait.”
There is also a uniquely symbolist quality in Hale’s work — in the historic sense of artists such as Gauguin and Bernard — that allows these stylistic qualities to be interpreted. Take “Man with the Shiny Pate,” where Hale has chosen a burnt red background that gradiates to a heavy and hard black. The sitter, with a sharp goateed chin and an aquiline nose, occupies the right half of the space, his head painted in planes that indicate a cubist inspiration. The eyes, bright blue behind large black-framed glasses, are large and punctuated with arching eyebrows. He wears a classic black suit with a small-knotted tie and white shirt. From this, the impression one might get is an unassuming yet confident intellectual in the classic school. The background lends a no-nonsense atmosphere of seriousness; the contours of the subject’s head reveal a disproportionately large brain; the large glasses smack of intellectualism as does the sharp goatee; the suit fits the model of the 1960’s intellectual and the eyes are the most telling and sensitively rendered. From these we read intelligence and a sense of security without pretense. It is a wonderfully articulated rendering not only of a man, but of a person.
Beyond Hale’s extraordinary stylistic ability is his talent to do just this; not only render the flesh of the man but the person beneath. When Alberti first spoke his prescriptive words, they alluded to a general state of obtaining a measure of the inner quality of whomever is being painted by the way the external is rendered. Rembrandt famously broke ground in this pursuit, imbuing his paintings with pathos: he achieved moments of acute sensitivity in images of the poor, and even in his large group portraits did his best to describe individual differences. English portraitists like Reynolds and Gainsborough fell into a frenzy of “romantic sensibility,” and the basic Albertian principle was abstracted in different ways through most of the Modernist period. And today portraitists are free to experiment and invent individual methodologies. Hale achieves not only the Albertian “movements of the soul,” but renders a subject that is fully dynamic, with a particular emotion or emotions, visible states of consciousness, and individual qualities such as confidence or meekness that they use to convey their persona.
The figure in “Wearing the Face” is very much alive on the canvas. She is painted against a van Gogh-yellow background that allows her dark features to boldly assert themselves. She is African American with short, cropped dark hair and her simple crew neck top is black. The head is oval and long with a pointed chin and exaggerated high cheekbones. Her lips are full. The nose is elongated and set between a pair of large hazel eyes beneath broad arched eyebrows. The neck is long and sinewy. The posture of the neck and the position of the head lend a sense of dignity. The lips show an expression of secure stability. The eyes, almost always the primary and most expressive element in Hale’s portraits, have a gaze with an immensity of depth of feeling. They seem to say “Although I am gentle I am strong. I may not be able to change the world but I am a realist and I believe in and know myself. I am sincere and hide nothing and have nothing to hide.”
Says Hale, “It is about the person and it is about me at the time. It’s about the connection that is on a subconscious level.” This connection is something Alberti, ostensibly, would not have thought possible. It reflects the subjective state of the sitter and the subjective mindset of Hale as he works, and the result is apparent. An exquisite example that attests to this “subjective portraiture” is “Fiery elegance: Haley.” This is one of Hale’s finest achievements with a wealth of nuances that burst from the canvas. The ground is a dark Rembrandtish mixture of browns and yellows. The hair (it might be ear-length or it might be pulled back, it’s hard to tell) is carrot orange in locks that resemble flames. The bare skin is a faint pale pink. She has squared but narrow shoulders and a long slender neck. Her face is a mannered oval with a sharp chin. She has full, heart-shaped lips and a long nose. This is set between large sea-blue eyes beneath bold, dark, rounded eyebrows.
Haley’s flesh is beautiful, feminine and adds an overall Classical tone to the portrait. Although she is bare she is modest: her shoulders are tilted and show a sense of reserve. We have already begun to know her. The neck is highly expressive and twists in a way that exudes confidence and poise. Her untamed hair is a sign of a possible carefree nature or a relaxed laissez-faire style. Her pursed lips reveal a sense of decision and composure. Yet again, the tale is told in the eyes. These eyes are what capture the attention immediately, even more so than the orange hair. These eyes add more to the Classical appeal and have a bold stoic quality to their façade that is intense in the cool blue, but they cannot hide the woman who thinks and feels deeply beneath.
These paintings reveal much about the nature of the sitter, but Hale is also proud that they are open to interpretation by different viewers. An excellent example of this is “Expanding Your Mind.” This striking image reveals a remarkable looking woman painted against a black background with a black overcoat. This sitter has bold features including a head with a mass of deep brick-red hair, pale skin, rouge red lips and a stub nose set between glassy blue eyes. It might appear frightful to one viewer who may react to the weighty contrast of black and red with the figure of a woman with wild hair and frenzied eyes who is clearly mad. Another viewer may see this same woman as interestingly eccentric, with the hair of an artist whose penetrating eyes sees what others don’t.
Hale has proven himself as a gifted portraitist by defining his oeuvre in a field in which it is difficult to be truly original. He is certainly this, and is working well in the bounds of a secure methodology that amounts to a signature style that does not break rules but reaches greater dimension and meaning within them.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.