William Swetcharnik


William Swetcharnik began his career some three decades ago, as a portraitist. In this section, we look mainly at commissioned portraits, relatively conservative in scope and intention. We provide some practical information about how a portrait commission is undertaken, we provide some art historical context, and we direct the visitor to some of his other genres of portraiture.

Types of portraits

Portraits of children

For a child's portrait such as the Portrait of Ceci, each session may last one to two hours with frequent breaks. In this case, the parents were very cooperative, and it was possible to create much of the painting on site with the child coming to pose briefly once in a while.

Business protraits

For an adult portrait of a busy administrator (here, Dr. John Lyons, former director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it is sometimes possible to complete the portrait with two or three sittings. This portrait, which required only two sittings from life, includes a background portrait of Michael Faraday, the great nineteenth-century scientist whose investigations with light had inspired the scientist Dr. Lyons.

Posthumous portraits

Sometimes there are unusual requirements for a portrait commission, in which it is impossible for the subject to pose. In the case of a posthumous portrait, sometimes it is possible to successfully interpret available surviving photographs. The Portrait of Dr.John Reeves, painted for a wing of a hospital that had been named in his honor, represents an interesting solution for a posthumous commission. In this case, the family of the deceased had specifically asked for a unique, unconventional composition. Presented as a trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") composition, in it we see the image of an easel with an unfinished portrait of the subject. Surrounding the easel are a number of personal keepsakes representing his life and interests, including a ceramic flower and a snapshot of him on his favorite garden tractor. In the background we see part of the reading room he built, and beyond the window, the river next to the house he built. In one sense, it is a portrait of an unfinished life; in another sense, it is a portrait of an ongoing life.

Environmental portraits

An "environmental" portrait pays particular attention to background details that provide special insights into the subject. For a complex environmental portrait such as Tea for Three, a considerable number of sessions may be requested. In a 1984 article in American Artist, editor Robin Longman observed how this portrait employed certain motifs to suggest the purpose of the painting: a commemoration of the couple's anniversary and the coming of their first child. The husband's reflection in the tureen cover in the background recalls the Arnolfini wedding portrait painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, while in a nearby vase we see a floral decoration with baby's breath.


William Swetcharnik does not specialize in pet portraits, though they may be included in portraits. While the artist worked on the "Tea for Three" portrait, the dog kept brushing its tail through his paint palette; some of those colors remain visible on its tail. Photography, however, can make the process easier.

Incidental and allegorical portraits

Of course, not all categories of portraiture are formal or even commissioned in the usual sense. It is worth noting that sometimes a person may want a portrayal of himself or a loved one, but in an indirect sort of way. There are many historical precedents for what we might call "incidental" portraits, in which a personage is portrayed in another role or even what seems to be an incidental role. The most familiar examples, of course, have been in the realm of theatre: Sarah Bernhardt, for example, in the role of Shakespeare's Ophelia. Rembrandt painted his wife in the role of Flora and other classical and biblical personas. And in the religious sphere, many patrons used to have themselves painted as if they were present in the midst of biblical scenes. Sometimes these paintings are commissioned, often they are collaborations. Squaring of the Circle was a collaboration in which a person who had purchased one of William Swetcharnik's Shell and Stone paintings, posed for him among a variety of artist's props and paintings in progress. This painting belongs to a certain genre, an allegory of the arts and the creative process, popular especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Regardie's magazine (October, 1990), Constance Stapleton discussed this painting both as an environmental and allegorical portrait.

The working process

Typically, the artist will first meet the portrait client and try to understand his or her desires and expectations. If the client is interested in an environmental or context-oriented portrait, they will discuss what kinds of background details might be included. Once a preliminary plan is approved, the client gives the artist a 30% deposit. Once the painting reaches a mature stage, the client gives the artist an additional 30%. When the painting is completed, the remainder is paid. Although framing is not included in the price, the artist will advise in this regard.

In some cases, the client may pose at the artist's studio near Washington, DC. In many cases, it is also desirable for the artist to paint on location where the client lives or works. If this requires traveling away from the Washington area, the artist assumes travel expenses and the client provides lodging and a work space during the beginning and final stages of the project (usually two weeks at the beginning and two weeks at the end).

Usually, the best results occur when plenty of time is allowed for each stage of the process. Although the artist will often take photographs for reference, the best results usually occur if the person can pose at least three times for a simple portrait, and at least six times for a complex portrait. A typical posing session lasts two to four hours. The artist does the rest of the work at his studio.

The total amount of time required to complete the portrait may vary. Although it is possible to complete a formal portrait within several weeks, the artist prefers to allow the process to take a gradual course. On occasion, the artist will undertake a second version of the portrait if he thinks it helpful.

Swetcharnik portraits now

Art historian Karen Mulder (American Arts Quarterly, Fall 1999), writes that William Swetcharnik, “whose early critical success was based on portraiture… could be questioning the value of portraiture in this day and age.” She describes an early still-life painting in which Swetcharnik depicts an empty canvas on his easel, surrounded by half-finished projects which in a sense are a portrait of the artist himself. She goes on to discuss Swetcharnik's main body of work, which questions our ideas of time, as well as his social/artistic projects in Central America. For three decades, Swetcharnik's portraits and other projects have influenced each other. In one portrait commission, Swetcharnik even depicted his subject half-painted on a canvas, surrounded by notes and remembrances from that person’s life. Others, such as his portrait of Honduran president Carlos Flores, provided income for his social projects. And during his final years in Honduras, Swetcharnik combined vanitas genre depictions with portraits of campesino children.


The cost of a portrait will depend on the size and the complexity of the detail to be included. Portraits are painted in oils on linen unless otherwise specified. Under some circumstances, multiple portraits may be quoted at lower price levels at the artist's discretion.