Hollywood’s best kept secret is a man now 80 years old, a man who, for more than half a century, has sat eye-to-eye with some of the cinema’s greatest luminaries, and has graciously asked them, “Can you please keep still?” That man is Don Bachardy, portrait artist.
Beginning his career at a time when the portrait had all but become a quaint reminder of yesteryear, Bachardy became one of the greatest chroniclers of Hollywood’s crème de la creme. As the longtime partner of English novelist Christopher Isherwood, Bachardy had access the most iconic figures of the silver screen. Collected for the first time in Hollywood (Glitterati Incorporated), the portraits of Don Bachardy include luminaries from Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and George Cukor to Montgomery Clift, Fred Astaire, and Edith Head. Bachardy sits down to speak with The Chic about his life’s work.
Bachardy remembers, “I began drawing very early as a child of three or four years old. It was not until I met Christopher Isherwood when I was 18 years old that I showed him the drawings I had been doing all my life, portraits of movie actors copied from magazines. Chris recognizes all the people I had been drawing and asked me if I had ever worked from life. I had not. He proposed himself as my first sitter.
“My drawing looked very much like him. In all our years together, he looked the oldest in that first little drawing. I remember when he saw it, he was taken aback, but he could not deny that it looked like him. When I had drawn from photographs in magazines and I put in every detail I could see, but the photographs were heavily leaned up. The lines and pouches were taken away. When I worked from life, I put it all in, the crow’s feet. I was innocent. I didn’t know what to leave out.
“Chris encouraged me to go to art school. I went for from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, then went back again from seven to ten in the evening. I didn’t take a balanced program to get an official degree. It didn’t mean anything to me. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I knew if I didn’t achieve that, nothing would satisfy me. So I took classes and developed a sharp eye. Working from life was totally different from copying pictures from magazines.
“My first sitting with a famous person was with Igor Stravinsky. He, his wife Vera, and their virtual son Robert were good friends of Chris. I was still in art school when he agreed to sit. We went to dinner and then afterward we retired to the study, where I did four drawings of him. They all turned out well. It was an encouragement to belief in myself and launched me on a career of celebrity portraits. I felt I could have success and I shouldn’t be afraid of drawing anyone well known. The obligation of a portrait artist is to draw someone well known so that the likeness could be appreciated.
“I was doing drawings of movie people I met through Chris, who was writing screenplays. It was very exciting meeting them and getting them to sit for me. I was really luxuriating in something I’d been doing all my life: looking at faces. When I was young I went with my mother and brother to the movies and became mesmerized by the giant close-ups. Imagine what it was like to have several of those people sitting for me.
“Myrna Loy as very kind and became a friend. She sat for me a few different times. I remember working as fast as I could; I didn’t want to waste her time. She sensed that I was in a hurry and told me, ‘Don’t rush. I have nothing better to do today.’ She put no pressure on me. Imagine my delight to sit and look closely. Ninety percent of the experience is concentration. I’ve never been one to do two things at one time. All my energy goes into looking and drawing.
“In the early days, people were smoking and quite a few of the early drawings have cigarettes in them. Tennessee Williams is holding wine glass in his. He would be up very early in the morning writing with a clear head, and by 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. he was done. The glass was well deserved, as he had probably been working since 4:00 or 5:00. I remember he was in his robe and was embarrassed to be looked at. To look eye to eye at someone is very against the grain for most of us.
“In the early days of looking I didn’t have to worry about someone looking at me while I was drawing. I would do three drawings: one looking away, one with a three-quarter profile, and one where the person was looking right at me. Those first two were a warm up and gave me the courage to work eye-to-eye. The experience was intimately related to the experience of watching movies. I was able to identify with the personalities without realizing what I was doing. I was attempting to feel like that people I was looking at. My friendship with Isherwood allowed me to make contact with a lot of the people I saw on the screen. I was in awe and at the same time, I was determined to record me experience of being with them.
“My method of work—spontaneous, intense, and without erasures or breaks, as fast as I ca manage—is based on my conviction that, despite all the difficulties, working from life is the only way to catch my sitter’s ‘aliveness.’ This often seemingly impossible task appeals to my own peculiar psychological make-up. Not only must I challenge myself, but my sitter too, whose patience, stillness, and concentration aloe me, not just to look and record, but to see.
“Hollywood is my favorite of all the books of my work. It is the first to show my color works. The book also has a special significance for me: it explains the way I worked. It shows different versions of my subject from the same sitting, as well as sittings with many years in between.
“The passage of time is a key element of my work. How many details of my sitter’s likeness—personality, physique, mood, color—can I manage to suggest in an unbroken stretch of time? The making of each of my pictures is similar to an unedited dance number from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. Without editing, the filmed number occurs in real time just as it was performed and is a good example of the tension which builds in one of my sittings, that very tension that can be created by extending without breaks any demanding physical performance.
“In the Astaire role I lead my partner into the spotlight to become the focal point of my inspection. In our duet I am, like Astaire in the thrall of my partner, my intense inspection the equivalent of Astaire’s infatuation with Rogers, whom he courts and yearns to make his own. My courting of my sitter is a dedicated and persistent, but my objective is to record rather than to seduce, to possess by imitation rather than persuasion.
“I am not sure what chic is. When I sit down to work with someone, I don’t want to be thinking about it. It would be like laying on my sitter a kind of qualification. When I look at my sitter, there is so much there that U want to get it on full blast and channel it without any preconceived ideas. I want my sitter to do the drawing for me. I am in effect doing a self-portrait; there is an instinctive self-identification which helps me with what I am doing. I am not only looking at them; I am feeling like them. We are identifying with the actor, and the characters they play. It is like a secret entry into their character.
“I am continually surprised to look at someone who is sitting for me because it is unnatural to sit still for hours at a time and have someone staring, peering, looking right through them. None of us like being stared at intentionally. I’ve often thought maybe I became an artist to have an excuse to look deeply at people. We choose professional that give us extra license.
“I put off working with artists for a longtime. David Hockney is an exception because he is a portrait artist. I started working professionally in 1959-60 when I did the portrait of Stravinsky. Nothing could have been more old-fashioned at that time, as it was the height of Abstract Expressionism. Most artists my age were doing that or making Pop Art. Andy Warhol gave me good advice. He said, ‘Draw everyone you know and when you’ve done them all, do them again.’
“I started to ask my sitters to sign and date my drawings because I wanted to make it clear it was done from life. Years later, I realized that the sitter’s signature is just as important as my own. It’s a collaboration. The better they sit, the better the portrait is. It’s our picture. We’re doing it together.
“We all have fields of energy. Art connects us from one to another. The electricity we are projecting creates warmth. I believe all our faces tell a story. I even imagine that if I could get a baby to be still long enough to connect, I’d sense what that baby would look like at 70 years old. All the surfaces of the face have the ability to express our entire experience. We are born with that capacity. It is in the face itself.
“I bet that’s why starting is considered rude; you are gaining information that is maybe dangerous. The face tells too much. When I am painting and drawing I see the sitter’s face go through extraordinary changes. The comment I hear most often is, ‘Ohh, I look so sad.’ If you are sitting without anything else to do, you will get through the experience with contemplation. That’s why I am forced to create a kind of compilation, suggesting different faces of a face and what it is capable of over time. Sometimes it seems so complex that a voice says to me, ‘You can’t handle this.’ But because it seems so impossible, it makes me want to do it all the more.”