A Sweet way with portraiture

In today’s age of selfies, Snapchat and FaceTime, the concept of a painted portrait might seem as cutting-edge as a horse and buggy.

For artist Olga Sweet, the challenge is to bring a contemporary relevance to one of the oldest forms of capturing images.

“Not everyone understands that portraits do not have to be boring,” says Sweet, who has something of the ethereality of the butterflies she raises. “They can be exciting.”

Consider Sweet’s portrait of Prince Harry. While the mention of the prince’s name might conjure tabloid-fueled tales of a fun-loving lad, Sweet depicts the royal as an elegant vision complete with top hat — balanced properly, not at a jaunty angle — and a smart rose pinned to his lapel. The sharpness of the prince’s blue eyes and the wryness of his ever-so-slight smile display a pensive maturity of a man who views the world with a certain curiosity, while Sweet’s decision to leave his topcoat unfinished wittily symbolizes Harry’s existential situation as a work in progress.  

Though Sweet has not met the prince — the portrait was commissioned for a charity auction — she has found herself in the company of a considerable lineup of notable personalities eager for her oil-on-linen portraiture. Her subjects include former President Jimmy Carter, polo champion and Ralph Lauren model Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras, former PepsiCo vice chairman Karl von der Heyden, former Bear Stearns CEO Alan “Ace” Greenberg and Torquhil Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. 

One trait that Sweet’s A-list clientele shares is the ability to maintain the common touch, particularly the polo champ Figueras. “Nacho is so good to my boys,” she says, referring to her 18- and 11-year-old sons. “He is so good with children.”

Even more enchanting was Carter. Her family joined her for the 2013 event in which she presented the former president with the portrait and her younger son, William, who was 7, stole the show when he volunteered information to the former commander in chief on ferreting out insincere people.

“He said, ‘President Carter, do you know how to tell somebody’s lying to you?” she recalls. “And he said, ‘How?’ And William said that the giveaway is when somebody is not looking at you. And President Carter said, ‘William, I’ve learned a lot from you.’ All of the Secret Service guys were smiling over that. I think they never smiled since they were in elementary school.”

William also expressed admiration for a small globe desk set on the president’s desk. Carter responded, “William I want you to have this.” And the globe desk set is on display in Sweet’s New Canaan home.

Born in Russia, Sweet earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in art and philosophy from Moscow University. She arrived in the United States in 1990 to study at The Carter Center at Emory University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in sociology and philosophy. She studied for four years with portraitist Ronald Sherr at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., before setting out on her own.

Sweet built her reputation and client base via word of mouth. While she prefers at least three sittings to capture the feel for the subject, time is not always her ally. “I often have to work from photographs, because people today are more busy than usual,” she laments. 

Nonetheless, the results of her work are striking. Her portrait of Figueras is a distinctive mix of the abstract and the intense, with the athlete looking directly at the observer with a take-no-prisoners intensity. Her interpretation of Frances Daly Fergusson, president emerita of Vassar College and former chairwoman of the board of overseers of Harvard University, offers a cerebral warrior in a power red dress, standing vibrantly against a hazy background. 

Perhaps her most striking portrait is not of a human figure:  In “Parrot with Ring,” a mischievous Polly forsakes the cracker for an Elizabeth Taylor-worthy piece of jewelry. The bird almost seems to offer flippant glee in not wanting to surrender its prize, while the ring shines with a near-magical illumination.

Sweet’s paintings are in private collections, and she is exploring the idea of raising her public visibility through a gallery show in 2018. But she acknowledges increasing her visibility will be daunting in this digital age.

“It is very hard,” she says. “There is no one way that you can be successful.” 

Although that may be a good thing.

For more, visit OlgaSweet.com.

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