Every Picture Tells a Story

With Portraits, Inc.’s dynamic ownership, a nationwide network of sales associates, and its roster of the world’s foremost portrait painters and sculptors, there is a particularly bright future for this unique American company based here in Birmingham.

Art has been a part of Beverly McNeil’s life for as long as she can remember. The president of Portraits, Inc., as well as the Beverly McNeil Gallery, she has steered a traditional company through changing times, making a classic product relevant for today. There are two other owners in addition to McNeil, Julia Boffman of Ohio and Ruth Reeves of North Carolina.

“Portraiture has such a strong tradition,” McNeil says. “It is a fun process, too. But without help, it can be very overwhelming. We know the artists and what they are like, and how they interact with subjects. Portraits, Inc. is part of the process with clients from beginning to end, down to the framing and hanging on the wall.”

At 75 years old, Portraits, Inc. is the oldest company of its kind in the country. Essentially an agency that connects artists and portrait subjects, Portraits, Inc. works with 165 portrait artists all over the U.S. Fifty-five associates work for the company and are located in various regions of the country. Portraits, Inc. serves as the central source, connecting customers and artists.

Prior to purchasing Portraits, Inc., McNeil owned Portrait Brokers, which she merged into the new company back in 1997. From the time Portraits, Inc. was started in 1942, the goal has been to help clients find the ideal artist to create the fine art portraits they desire. Sales associates, located in communities across the country, have been trained as experts in fine portraiture.

Portraits, Inc., was founded in 1942 by Lois Shaw, an art and antiques dealer and socialite. In the early 1940s, Shaw partnered with the USO to give weekly studio parties in her Park Avenue gallery that often centered on portraiture. She contacted a number of portrait artists and asked them to contribute their services by doing life drawings of the military men and women in uniform who attended the parties. These fine portraits were then nicely matted and mailed as gifts to the families of the subjects. Mrs. Shaw received a special citation for her efforts from the U.S. government.

As she was hosting these events, Shaw quickly realized that portrait artists really had no special gallery to exhibit their work. Dedicating a room in her gallery exclusively to fine portraiture, she announced a new service called “The Portrait Painters’ Clearing House.” That marked the official launch of Portraits, Inc.

A true pioneer in the exclusive representation of fine portrait artists, Portraits, Inc., firmly established its position as the world’s most esteemed portrait company in the ensuing decades. With a roster that includes virtually every major portrait painter and portrait sculptor in the world, the company’s mission from the outset has been to restore fine portraiture to its historic position in the fine arts. For more than 70 years, clientele have included the foremost names in the worlds of business, the professions, the arts, academia, and society.

The product itself seems timeless. “We are finding artists who are adjusting styles to meet current appeal. It is very personal, and with the artists we work with we can find something  for any client because of range of styles we represent,” McNeil says.

Prices vary according to the medium and the artist.

“Oil portraits start at $3,500; charcoal starts at $1,200. You can afford a portrait,” she says.

McNeil operated Portrait Brokers of America here in Birmingham prior to the purchase of Portraits, Inc. She was also owner of an art gallery located in Destin for about 15 years. When McNeil moved back to Birmingham, she became excited by the notion of reopening the Beverly McNeil Gallery in the space occupied for decades by the Loretta Goodwin Gallery.

“My goal is to have 10 local, 10 regional and 10 national artists associated with the gallery. There is a lot of physical work to the gallery business. Plus social media is a lot to keep up with. But to me there is nothing like an opening. We do a lot of commissions as well,” McNeil says.

“Art has played a huge part in my life. My mother in law was big art collector. I started collecting 25 years ago. Art is essential. The harder life gets, the more I think we need beauty. The arts round us out. It is one of the most important things that stand the test of time.”