Cindy Sherman: It Began with Madame de Pompadour

Jul 24, 2013 7:49PM

The following is an excerpt from a new, previously unpublished interview between Art21 and Cindy Sherman from 2008, wherein the artist discusses the ideas behind photographs from her "History Portraits" (1989–1990) series, beginning with the objects shown here.

ART21: What was the impetus for History Portraits?

SHERMAN: This piece [Untitled (#183 A)] was sort of where it all began. In the late ‘80s I was invited to do something with a company that wanted artists to make objects that were functional yet works of art. They suggested I do something with Limoges and invited me to their factory where they had casts of everything they’d ever done. They had a lot of things that Madame de Pompadour had designed when she was involved with King Louis XV. I decided to use a tureen that was made for her and I shot all these pictures loosely based on her.

ART21: Is this Madame herself or is this your idea of her?

SHERMAN: Like everything I do, I wasn’t really trying to copy any picture of Madame de Pompadour, but to look like someone like Madame de Pompadour. A year after I made this I had a show in Paris that coincided with a big celebration of the French Revolution. And so in continuing the theme of the Madame de Pompadour, I did a whole series of characters that were inspired by my research of the Revolution and that whole period. And I started doing more poses as men.

ART21: What were some of the challenges of portraying a man?

SHERMAN: I hadn’t done too many characters that were supposed to be men. I had tried in some of the black and white photographs but they weren’t successful. In doing this work I realized it was not so hard visually—with makeup, wigs, and costumes—to make myself look like a man. What was easier in these pictures that was harder in earlier work was that I wasn’t trying to show any emotion. These characters are just sitting there kind of frozen in time. Whereas the new work is so much about a kind of emotion that comes out of the face, from behind the makeup I’ve put on.

Cindy Sherman was first featured by Art21 in Season 5 of the series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century." Read the full interview and watch videos featuring the artist at

Additional images: Cindy Sherman in front of her works—"Untitled (#214)" (1989) [top] and "Untitled (#216)" (1989) [bottom]—at Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2008. Production stills from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Transformation," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.