Don Bachardy’s Tribute to Women on Display at Santa Monica College

Story and photos by Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

On October 20, 1986, Karla Klarin sat in Don Bachardy’s studio, and the day, the quotidian, eclipsed just another day. For three hours Klarin became for the artist a fascination rooted in the power of people’s faces. It is the intimacy of that moment, alive and fleeting, that Bachardy anchors on paper.

Klarin’s portrait is one of 61 paintings featured in “Don Bachardy: The Women, 50 Years of Portraits,” now on view through December 2 at Santa Monica College’s Barrett Art Gallery.

For decades, the renowned Santa Monica Canyon portrait artist has been sharpening his eye on hundreds of sitters, directing a relentless focus on the face, the eyes and the mouth with his acrylics, ink and pencil.

Actress Jane Russell, February 9, 2009

At 83, Bachardy has amassed a colossal body of work, drawing or painting thousands of people, including the famous and not so famous.

“What you’ll see in this exhibition is how Don has developed and the way he’s gone about making art,” says gallery director Marian Winsryg.

“Not only his longevity, but the art-making never stops,” she continues. “It takes much work to finally get to where you want with the art.”

Bachardy’s relentless output is seeded in his established routine. He rises early, works out, reads, and by noon is in the two-story studio next to his house, where he’s lived since 1962, for many of those years with his longtime companion, British writer Christopher Isherwood, until Isherwood’s death in 1986.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, 16 October 2017

No biography of Bachardy would be complete without Isherwood, whom he met at Will Rogers State Beach on Valentine’s Day, 1953, when Don was 18, Isherwood 48.

Bachardy credits Isherwood with encouraging and shaping his instinct for capturing faces.

In the 2008 documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story, Bachardy says, “Chris knew exactly what to do with me. He took this young boy and warped him to his mold.” Within a year, Bachardy had adopted Isherwood’s mannerisms and a vaguely British accent.

Karla Klarin, October 20, 1986

Bachardy has made a name for himself in the art world, but he unabashedly credits Isherwood with encouraging his instincts to draw. The writer was the first to suggest that Bachardy try drawing from life, surrendering himself to his lover’s brush. Isherwood became not only his first sitter, but also a frequent sitter throughout his life, and death. In the last six months of his life, Isherwood was his only sitter.

“I cancelled all others and worked on many drawings a day,” Bachardy said in a 2013 London Telegraph interview. “It was the most intense way I could be with him; nothing could be more intense than looking at somebody in the way I look at them, while I’m drawing them.” After Isherwood was dead, Bachardy completed 11 drawings before the doctor arrived.

Drawing of Don Bachardy’s mother, Glade, 1962

In the early days of his career, when nobody had ever heard of Don Bachardy, Isherwood helped connect him to top-echelon men and women in Hollywood. Bachardy’s 2013 coffee-table book, Hollywood, featured more than 300 portraits of celebrities, including legends like Bette Davis and Fred Astaire and many contemporary actors such as Jack Nicholson and Robert Downey Jr.

While Bachardy was admittedly star-struck, and still is, he has remained committed to his attention to the mystery of faces.

“I think that going to the movies from such a young age is what made me a portrait artist,” he said in a 2014 interview in Queerty. “I got so interested in those giant close-up actors’ faces. Those images gave me my interest in faces, but also my natural inclination of imitating people internally. It took me years to realize that I was identifying with the people who were sitting for me.”

Bachardy self-portrait from his book, Hollywood.

Bachardy appreciates a sitter who follows his simple instructions. The very best sitter is a concentrated sitter who is still, he told Queerty. “Some people who sit for me think they’re doing me a favor by trying to make me record what they want to look like, instead of leaving my profession to me.

“I only record what I see, and that’s the whole point of working from life, is not tampering with what is there, not tampering with the truth.”

For Palisadian Nancy Smith, who sat for a portrait, “It was a grueling process. He insisted on eye contact; you could be off in your own world while still staring at Don.”

Bachardy did three portraits of Smith in one afternoon, during a session that lasted close to four hours, albeit with a break.

“I was sitting on the edge of a couch in his studio facing the window that looks over Santa Monica Canyon,” she recalls. At one point he told Smith that he had no idea if the portrait looked anything like her. “He doesn’t try to make a flattering portrait. That’s not what it’s all about.”

Nancy Allen, August 6, 2001

“I’m looking for the identity of the sitter,” Bachardy said in an interview at an exhibition of his work at Southwestern College in 2015. “My sitter tells me who he is by allowing me to inspect his face. If you believe that, it’s a very good way to live your life, because we all want to look our best, and maybe if we are kind to other people that will show up in our faces—I think it will.”

With thousands of portraits, most of them crammed into his split-level studio, Bachardy was from the beginning an obsessive worker.

“Don says he is miserable unless he can draw for three hours at the very least, every day,” Isherwood complained in his diary in 1961.

With the inventory still growing, Bachardy is contemplating a better home for his work, most likely at the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, which already houses the bulk of Isherwood’s papers.

For more information, call 310-434-3434 or visit

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