Would Jesus Have Sat for a Portrait?: The Likeness of Christ in the Popular Reception of Warner Sallman’s Art

Citation: 
Morgan, David. “Would Jesus Have Sat for a Portrait?: The Likeness of Christ in the Popular Reception of Warner Sallman’s Art.” Criterion 33(1):11-17, Winter 1994.
Abstract: 

David Morgan addresses the meanings, both positive and negative, which people have attached to Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ (1941) and considers how Sallman’s work has shaped Protestant culture in America. Among Sallman’s admirers, Morgan finds at least three major categories of likeness to the person of Jesus in the reception of Sallman’s art: (1) the optical likeness, describing how some believe the portrait to be an accurate image of the historical Jesus of Nazareth; (2) the virtual likeness, whereby for some admirers the image is no longer like Christ but actually becomes Christ; and (3) the ideological-psychological likeness, this being the tendency of the image to fulfill or corroborate an ideological expectation or psychological need. Morgan identifies six categories of negative response among the artist’s detractors: (1) the picture is ethnically and culturally inaccurate; (2) it is theologically misinformed or scripturally proscribed; (3) it is racist; (4) it is effeminate; (5) it is homoerotic; and (6) it is sentimental, soft and weak. Though Sallman’s detractors find in his art examples of cultural accommodation, Morgan concludes that both detractors and admirers “assimilate their deity to a cultural construction.”

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