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A new photography exhibition at the McCord Museum mirrors 19th-century practices

Marisa Portolese's two-year residency culminates with exhibition that pays tribute to Concordia, Montreal, William Notman
August 22, 2018
Marisa Portolese: “Each of the models in the show are women in my life.” | Photos courtesy of the artist

Marisa Portolese is a proud Montrealer and Concordian — and it shows in her art. Her focused portraits of women always reveal deep connections to her city and the university’s artistic community.

Now, after two years as the McCord Museum’s artist-in-residence, the associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Studio Arts is showcasing her final exhibition, In the Studio With NotmanCurated by Hélène Samson, the show neatly combines both of Portolese’s artistic preoccupations into a series of portraits that explore history, women, aesthetics and agency.

A very specific historical study

During her residency at the McCord, Portolese dug deep into the museum’s archives and found more than 500,000 photographs by William Notman, Canada’s most famous 19th-century photographer. Notman moved to Montreal from Scotland in 1856 and lived in the city until his death in 1891.

Portolese was immediately struck by the portraiture and set design of Notman’s depictions of women — particularly the confidence they displayed for the Victorian era.

“I wanted to create a very specific historical study by using the archives and juxtaposing them with modern portraiture of friends, family and colleagues,” she says. 


Portolese made deliberate choices of who would appear in her portraits, opting for working women, photographers and women of colour rather than the city’s elite. All of Notman’s 19th-century women offer a direct and confident gaze to the camera — one Portolese took great pains to mirror using her own models.

“Each of the models in the show are women in my life — friends, family and colleagues of all ages and walks of life. They are not my clients,” says Portolese.

Cynthia Hammond, a professor in the Department of Art History, posed twice for Portolese.

“She crafts the entire experience with great care, from the backdrop to the china in which she serves you tea after the shoot,” says Hammond.

Portolese also replicated some of Notman’s 19th-century practices by using the same conditions as he did. For instance, she shot in daylight only, with no flash and an analog camera. Her use of flowers, colours and large still life paintings are both a nod to 19th-century practices and a marker of her sumptuous style in each portrait.

“We can’t control natural light,” she explains. “It controlled me.”


It’s important that my connection to Concordia grows

Marisa Portolese

Holding her first solo museum exhibition in her native city is a poignant moment for Portolese.

“It’s really special to have the show here where I’m from. The McCord is Montreal history,” she says.

In an alcove of the exhibition, Portolese matches Notman’s photographs to her own portraits that challenge conventions of female representation. The nook is both a look behind the curtain of her research process and a nod to her 2016 show at the FOFA Gallery, Belle de jour III: Dialogues with Notman’s Portraits of Women.

In addition, this portion of the show reveals the roots of her interest in how women are photographed and depicted in portraits, as well as her dedication to choosing Concordians as her subjects.

“It goes back to 2002 — right after graduate school — to when I began my Belle de Jour project, which really defined me as an artist,” Portolese says.

The Belle de Jour series portrays contemporary women as iconic female types, culled from the canons of art history, vernacular culture and now, through the photographic history of Montreal. As with all her previous shows, Concordians will recognize many familiar faces in this exhibition.

“She has really given great tributes to the women in Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts,” says Kathleen Perry, librarian at the Digital Image and Slide Collection and another of Portolese’s subjects. “Being part of something at the McCord, especially around women and history, is special. It’s such a Montreal institution.”

Portolese also used the exhibition and her residency as a teaching tool. Not only did she share her research with students in class, she also had them visit the museum’s documentation centre and archives.

Now on sabbatical, Portolese is directing her lens on her next artistic project, which will focus on Italian-Canadians in Montreal.

“It’s important to me that my connection to the community and to Concordia grows,” she says.

In the Studio With Notman runs until Feb. 10, 2019, at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke W).

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