In this black and white portrait photograph the socialite Katherine Cebrian sits in profile on an embroidered chair in front of a window, her left arm resting on her leg, her right arm stretched along the top of the seat as she gazes in front of her towards the left-hand edge of the picture. She is dressed in a black flowing caftan with her hair wrapped in a glittering black turban. A large necklace of gold and coral hangs around her neck and onto her chest, and a serpent bracelet is coiled around her wrist on her right arm. A thin vertical section of wall behind the chair indicates that the photograph was taken indoors, although either side of this wall are windows that reveal a leafy landscape beyond. Cebrian’s head is entirely framed by one of the windows so that her pale skin contrasts against the darker foliage outside.
Robert Mapplethorpe took this portrait of Cebrian in her San Francisco home. He was introduced to the socialite by Edward de Celle, the owner of a gallery in San Francisco where Mapplethorpe had an exhibition at the time. De Celle, who referred to Cebrian as ‘San Francisco royalty’ (cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.240), arranged for Mapplethorpe to take Cebrian’s portrait, but was nervous about the photographer dressing and behaving inappropriately as Cebrian ‘abhorred bad manners’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.240). To de Celle’s horror Mapplethorpe wore his customary black leather outfit and a belt that spelled out the word ‘SHIT’. Although de Celle was anxious, according to Morrisroe, ‘Mapplethorpe worked his quiet charms on the elderly woman ... and continued talking softly to her while he set up his tripod in the sitting room’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.241). Cebrian enjoyed the session and immediately invited Mapplethorpe to attend the Convent of the Sacred Heart benefit for which she was dressed. To Cebrian’s surprise the photographer escorted her to the benefit dressed as he was, although this did not prevent her from introducing him to her friends and other members of San Francisco high society.
Portraiture forms a significant part of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre. His biographer Patricia Morrisroe discusses the methods he used when taking portraits, noting that he usually began with a profile shot as he found it to be the most natural. From this profile position he would ‘rotate the head to locate the most becoming pose’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.241). Mapplethorpe clearly considered the profile shot in this case to be most fitting, as it emphasised Cebrian’s distinctive nose, which, according to Morrisroe, alludes to ‘nobility and power’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.241). The writer Peter Conrad has also noted the regal aspect of this portrait, referring to the faces of monarchs found on coins and postage stamps which transform the individual into a ‘symbol of value’. Moreover, a prominent nose, Conrad has argued, stands for ‘Roman-ness, and thus for empire’ (Conrad 1988, p.11).
De Celle explained that Cebrian was frequently approached for portraits, but that she usually turned offers down. According to the gallery owner, the success of this portrait was due to Mapplethorpe’s personable nature: ‘He was such an excellent observer, and he showed more interest in other people than anyone I’ve ever met. That’s what made his pictures so good, and why so many different people responded to him.’ (De Celle cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.141.)
Peter Conrad, ‘Twelve Facets of Mapplethorpe’, in Mapplethorpe Portraits: Photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe 1975–87, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1988, pp.9–21.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A Biography, London 1995.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
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