Collection Spotlight: Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe

Title: Patti Smith

Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)

Nationality: American

Date: 1986

Medium: Gelatin Silver print

Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Jeffrey H. Loria, 2015.7.3


Singer and poet Patti Smith was one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s earliest and most frequent photographic subjects, and over two decades he took many photographs of her. They first met in New York in the summer of 1967.  Romantically involved in the early years, they shared a living space, ideas, and struggles as aspiring artists. As Mapplethorpe worked through his sexual identity as a gay man, they remained lifelong friends and continued to share a deep creative and spiritual connection.

Although Mapplethorpe originally worked in painting, sculpture, and collage, in 1970 a friend lent him a Polaroid camera. He experimented widely with it, mainly creating images for use in his collages.  Smith, his girlfriend at the time, became the frequent subject of early Polaroid photographs, many of which showed her posing in their room.

After 1973, photography became Mapplethorpe’s signature medium. He received a Hasselblad medium-format camera from John McKendry, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and began to create more formal studio photographs. In the mid-1970s Mapplethorpe took the now iconic photograph of an androgynous Smith in a white shirt with a jacket slung over her shoulder that became the cover image of her album Horses (1975). He eventually went on to shoot cover photos of her for other albums Waves (1979) and Dream of Life (1988).

albrecht-durer-alte-pinakothekIn the 1986 portrait in the Block Museum collection, Patti Smith emerges from a dark background, engaging the viewer with her gaze. The background gives no suggestion of a particular time or place. Her face looks straight ahead and is bathed in light. While the contrast of dark and light is dramatic and lends mystery, it also draws on conventions of portraiture from the European Renaissance and other historic periods. Her pose and gesture closely resemble one of the best-known self-portraits in European painting—Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait Munich Alte Pinakothek (1500). In Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Smith, her presence is similar with its insistent frontality and confident fixed gaze. Her hair and bangs frame her face, as in the portrait by Dürer. There is also an echo of Dürer’s Christ-like gesture of blessing.


For the portrait Mapplethorpe also seems to draw on Victorian photographic traditions, especially the work of Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815–1879). The photograph’s psychological presence connects the subject and the viewer. While there are no props or identifiable iconography, the studio photograph is carefully staged. Smith performs for the camera, and the photograph becomes a timeless image.

The year that Mapplethorpe made the portrait, both he and Smith turned forty years old and both had attained a level of success in their respective fields—Mapplethorpe as photographer and Smith as a rock and roll legend. By that time, Smith had moved to Michigan with her family and had taken a reprieve from the music world to raise her two children. As does the Dürer portrait, the photograph seems to mark a moment when Smith proclaims herself as an artist and creator worthy of monumental portraiture. Smith has also described the close connection between Mapplethorpe and herself, and how their close relationship fostered his vision: “I was his first model, a fact that fills me with pride. The photographs he took of me contain a depth of mutual love and trust inseparable from the image. His work magnifies his love for his subject and his obsession with light.”

— Contributed by Corinne Granof, Block Museum Curator of Academic Programs


Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply