Peyton Manning portrait is brutish, but so is professional football

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Portraiture has always been as much about propaganda as it is about painting. Nothing trumpets a person's glory — real or imagined — better than their carefully honed countenance immortalized on canvas for all to admire.

Payton Manning by Stephen Holland

From a historical perspective, no genre of art is more important, especially when you consider that photography is a relatively recent phenomenon. From Jesus to George Washington, portraits give us a collective way of seeing our famous forefathers. We know artists take liberties, but we take what we can get.

And, no doubt, we value portraits for more than recording the facts. We revere "Mona Lisa" because DaVinci rendered something eternal in her knowing smirk. "Whistler's Mother" is all of our mothers, confident, noble, respected.

It's that essence of frozen humanity that makes Stephen Holland's new portrait of Peyton Manning interesting. His heroic rendering of the Denver Broncos quarterback — in uniform, gaze fixed toward the goal line, arm drawn — is over-the-top in every way. It's crass, brutish, about as subtle as a Marvel comic book.

But one could say the same things about professional football. This is a sport where dudes bang into each other's heads until they get brain damage. It wouldn't be appropriate to paint its protagonists with the spiritual precision of Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Even within that, Holland does capture something curious about Manning's particular skills. This athlete's genius surfaces in tiny moments, those split seconds when he senses an open target amidst the chaos of a field in play. Holland seizes him at the very instant.

Sports portraiture is never refined. No one will ever mistake LeRoy Neiman's gutty "Muhammad Ali" for Thomas Gainsborough's precocious "Blue Boy." In this game, profit and piety are equal motivators. That's likely the case here, with a limited set of 39 prints available, signed by both artist and subject, for $3,000 each (the original painting is listed for $20,000).

But Holland gets it. He's not painting a nobel laureate, he's painting a quarterback, beloved for his brawn and might. If brawn is what you value, this might look great hanging next to your big-screen TV.