Joe and Mary Olk spend their winters in Bonita Springs, Florida, where they keep a commissioned painting of their 10-room home in Missouri. The watercolor, Mary Olk said, “reminds me of what the house will look like when we get back to Chesterfield in the spring.”
Commissioned portraits of private homes are something of a niche market, used primarily by real estate brokers seeking a memorable keepsake for a client or someone looking for an unusual gift, which was the case for the Olks, who received their portrait from longtime friends.
“I had never heard of any artist doing portraits of houses,” Olk said. “I thought, ‘What?’”
A framed photograph of a house might have served the same purpose, but an artist’s interpretation of a photograph offers the chance to enhance reality — or create a new one. House portraitists, also known as architectural artists or home painters, are often asked to modify aspects of the house they’re painting or add details that aren’t really there. Depending on the artist and the size of the painting, costs can run anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, with watercolors generally costing less than oil paintings.
Richelle Flecke, the St. Louis-based painter of the Olks’ house, said she has frequently been asked by homeowners to alter the color of shutters, add or remove trees and plants, or make the portrait a summertime image rather than a winter scene, even if she saw the house when it was covered in snow.
The Olks’ friends, Marie and Mark Meyer, wanted to give them a house portrait as a thank-you gift after having spent a vacation week in the Olks’ third house in Telluride, Colorado. The Meyers found Flecke online and put her in touch with Olk to work out the details: which view of the house to focus on, what time of day and time of year to place the house, what to include or omit.
Flecke spent an hour visiting with Olk, who led her around the house, pointing out vantage points that she wanted to have included in the final portrait. The artist took photographs to use as references back at her studio. Olk asked Flecke to omit any weeds or bald spots in the yard. She also asked her “to make every plant be in bloom.”
Requests to include one thing or another, such as plants in full bloom even when they’re not, are fairly standard. Other requests less so. “I’ve added children and pets to these house portraits,” Flecke said. “I once was asked to put an RV in the driveway, and I did.”
So far, no request has seemed too outlandish, and she has accommodated them all.
While landscape portraiture became a common endeavor for artists centuries ago, homes were rarely the principal subjects of the paintings. The Vanderbilt family commissioned artist John Singer Sargent to paint several family portraits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, but none of Biltmore Estate, their famed 8,000-acre property in Asheville, North Carolina. One house portrait painter of note, albeit fictional, was Charles Ryder, the narrator of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited.” He was not taken very seriously as an artist, but his vocation was a convenient vehicle for exploring Brideshead Castle and the world it represented.
“During the last two millennia of art production in eastern and western cultures, one can find plenty of examples of paintings depicting domestic interiors and lots of paintings showing exterior views of homes within a landscape or cityscape format,” said Michael Aurbach, a professor of art at Vanderbilt University. But rare to the point of nonexistent, he said, is “a portrait-like painting of a home’s exterior.”
Today, the market for house portraits is sustained largely by real estate agents. Adams Hayes, a broker with Milestone Realty in Rockland, Massachusetts, said he often commissions paintings for older clients who have sold their longtime homes and moved into assisted-living facilities. Each portrait, which he commissions from artist Renee MacMurray, “gives my clients a piece of their home back to them wherever they are now living.” MacMurray, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, charges between $600 and $15,000, based on the size and medium of the finished artwork.
Another broker, St. Louis-based Larry Dietzel, said he gives house portraits to homebuyers “as a thank you, housewarming gift.” The recipients tend to be higher-priced clients who are paying $600,000 or more for a house.
Commissions from brokers represent a considerable percentage of the requests for home portraits received by Clearwater, Florida, watercolor painter Leisa Collins. “These Realtors could give a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers,” she said, but a painting is more evergreen and certainly more one-of-a-kind.
Many of Collins’ clients are homeowners. They tend to be people who “have put a lot of time and care into the home, and it is very validating to have a painting of it.” The work is typically hung somewhere where visitors will see it, becoming a conversation piece.
“A photograph just would not do,” said Peter Grossman, a retired international banker with American Express who commissioned Deborah Chabrian to paint his 18th-century, eight-room home in Kent, Connecticut, just a few years before selling it in 2015 and moving with his husband to Delray Beach, Florida.
“This was a 1760 farmhouse that is very warm and charming and very magical, surrounded by an expansive lawn, with original stone walls and some maple trees that are more than 200 years old,” Grossman said. A photograph, regardless of how colorful and sharp the image, “just wouldn’t have done justice to the property. A watercolor is much more poetic.”
“Poetic” included asking Chabrian to paint pink flowers in bloom up against the house, and “I vaguely remember wanting Deborah to put more garden in the picture than you might ordinarily see.”
Grossman said the painting took on more meaning for him and his husband after they moved. “We enjoyed the portrait and enjoyed living there. Now, we enjoy the memories.”