Alvin L. Gittins, 1922-1981 (oil on canvas). The last painting Gittins completed was a self-portrait, commissioned by University President David P. Gardner. Gittins finished it on March 3, 1981, the day before he died. The painting is on permanent display at the entrance to the Gittins Gallery, on the main floor of the Department of Art and Art History.
View larger image of self-portrait

When Alvin Gittins walked into class, there seemed to be more oxygen in the room. With his British accent, neatly trimmed beard flecked with gray, and refined demeanor, Gittins brought a whiff of exotic elegance to the U of U campus.

Gittins taught in the Department of Art and Art History from 1947 to 1981. During that time, he served as department chair (1956-62), gave the annual Reynolds Lecture (1964), and received the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award (1976) and the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters Distinguished Service Award in Arts and Letters (1980).

He also held the position of University portraitist-in-residence for almost 30 years, producing 90 commissioned portraits—of presidents, physicians, deans, scientists, researchers, artists, and other prominent personalities—that adorn the walls of departments and colleges across the campus.

A generation of students has graduated from the U since 1981, the year Gittins died at the age of 59. Many of these students, now alumni, are perhaps unaware of the remarkable legacy he left to the University.

Simply put, Gittins was a master portrait painter. One of a kind. He was also a charismatic personality, radiating an allure that lingers still.

His compelling character is reflected in his canvases, which perhaps explains why the subjects in his portraits seem to breathe, as if blood were coursing through their veins. V. Douglas Snow, retired professor of art and Gittins’ close friend and colleague, said, at a 1981 memorial service: “We talk of [Gittins’] paintings as if they were products that we could isolate from the man, but of course that is foolish. The paintings are the man and they exemplify the essential qualities that made Alvin Gittins so extraordinary.”

Born and raised in Kidderminster, Worcester, England, Gittins studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Kidderminster and the Central School of Art in London. In the mid-’40s, he came to the U.S. to attend BYU as an exchange student. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s in art in 1947, he was hired at the U as an instructor of art. He had already begun accepting portrait commissions.

Walter P. Cottam
, professor of botany and founder of Red Butte Garden & Arboretum (oil on canvas, 1975). Gittins’ skill as a landscape painter is evident here, as is his ability to render the substance of different objects—from leaves and stone to the texture of the yarn in the multicolored vest. The portrait is on display in the Walter P. Cottam Visitor Center, Red Butte Garden & Arboretum.

Schooled in the tradition of British portraiture, Gittins focused on painting the human “figger” (as he called it), a subject he found “forever fascinating,” a “never-ending source of inspiration.” As a teacher, he felt it was essential for his students to study anatomy and figure drawing, and to understand the mechanics of chiaroscuro—how light and shade delineate the human form, revealing its musculature and defining characteristics. He sought out unusual body types as class models—well-muscled athletes, stout matrons, willowy dancers—so that his students would learn to move beyond stereotypes to render the individuality of each person on their drawing pads.

Gittins’ anatomy classes were especially rigorous. At least one of his students managed to obtain permission to sit in on medical school dissections in order to observe and sketch human anatomy from the inside out. Even so, the student found critical comments, such as “dog bones” or “table legs,” scrawled in the master’s hand across some of her anatomical studies.

Gittins’ instruction went beyond rendering the likeness of a model; it extended to capturing the quintessence of a person, or, as he put it, the individual’s “gestalt.” That meant striking “a chord of resemblance,” he explained—not just reproducing body structure but capturing body language, personality, subtle differences of skin color (“the mauve under the eyes”), facial expression, and distinguishing features. He extolled Daumier, the 19th-century French artist-caricaturist, and his ability to characterize a person with a few quick strokes of a pen. On more than one occasion, Gittins punctuated this lesson by producing a caricature of himself.

Recently retired Professor F. Anthony Smith BFA’62 MFA’64, a former student and colleague of Gittins, comments, “He didn’t so much teach as demonstrate. Looking over your shoulder, he would say, ‘That knee looks like a sack of walnuts,’ then use his skill with the tools to show you how it should be done.”

Brigham D. Madsen BA’36, emeritus professor of history and administrative vice president, retired
(oil on canvas, 1978) Gittins was particularly adept at rendering hands, which often played an important compositional role in his portraits. He chose to portray Madsen with hands folded in his characteristic way and dressed in informal attire. Madsen explains, “I asked Al if he wasn’t tired of painting men in blue suits, and he agreed that I should wear whatever I felt comfortable in, so I did.” The portrait hangs in the Winder boardroom in the Park Building.

In addition to his distinctive approach to teaching, Gittins was known for his sartorial style. Quite the opposite of the stereotypical scruffy artist, he appeared in class impeccably dressed in a suit and tie or turtleneck sweater and sports jacket, and somehow managed to emerge from painting sessions with nary a smear on his attire. Snow once warned Gittins, as they were heading out to rural Utah for an on-site painting session, that he would probably get paint on his leather jacket. Gittins responded, tongue tucked firmly in cheek, “Douglas, true professionals never get paint on their clothes.” Robert Olpin BS’63, former dean of the College of Fine Arts, confirms, in a less than serious tone, that Gittins’ main concern in venturing into the backcountry was “getting dust on his Wellingtons.”

As portraitist-in-residence, Gittins was commissioned to paint three portraits a year in lieu of one quarter’s teaching. As a result, a stream of distinguished sitters entered and exited the artist’s studio. Smith notes that Gittins developed a coterie of close friends by carrying on an intelligent conversation with the sitter while capturing his or her likeness on canvas. In the process, Smith says, he played the role of University ambassador to a host of influential people.

Gittins painted prominent local personalities, including Governors Scott Matheson BS’50 and Calvin Rampton JD’39, U.S. Senator Frank Moss BA’33, Judge Willis Ritter BA’38, and LDS Church President David O. McKay BS1897, to name a few. He ultimately earned an international reputation, receiving portrait commissions for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I (painted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), famed anthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey (painted in Nairobi, Kenya), actors Arlene Francis and Martin Gabel, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Nobel laureate Willard F. Libby, and artist Joseph Hirsch, among others. His work was represented in galleries in California and Nevada, and in New York at Portraits, Inc., which manages some of the foremost portrait painters in the country. He held numerous one-man shows across the country and exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the Royal Society of British Painters in London.

If Gittins occasionally failed to meet patrons’ expectations, it was perhaps because they took umbrage at the directness of his approach—rendering a receding hairline, facial wrinkles, or sagging jowls as he saw them. More often than not, his patrons were ecstatic with the results. His secretary once scrawled on a pink telephone message slip, “Client says: ‘Painting arrived on time and intact and is exquisite!’”

Gittins eschewed abstract art. He pursued traditional portraiture at a time when it was considered passé, irrelevant to the contemporary art world and the prevailing philosophy of “inventing not copying.” The notion of delving into abstract art was, he said, like “playing chess without a chessboard.” He could not relate to a style of painting that, to him, lacked structure or meaning. Except for a few landscapes and still lifes, Gittins focused almost exclusively on portraiture, in spite of the swirl of “isms” that surrounded him throughout his career.

When Snow, a promising young abstract painter, was brought onto the art faculty in the late ’50s by Dean Lowell Durham, he was warned that he might be at odds with Gittins. “Much to my surprise,” says Snow, “Al and I hit it off immediately. We became best friends. It was never an issue.”

Henry B. Eyring, dean of the Graduate School (oil on canvas, 1969). A world-renowned chemist, Henry Eyring came to the U in 1948 from Princeton to be the first dean of the Graduate School. The background illustrates Gittins’ concern for placing figures in an appropriate context. The portrait hangs in the Henry Eyring Building.

On the contrary, Snow believes that the faculty’s diversity made the department stronger. “The art department had a reputation as one of the best undergraduate programs in the country,” says Snow. “We had a fundamental desire to keep the program balanced — to teach basic traditions, but also to stay in touch with current developments in the art world.”

So, Gittins bucked the wave of modernity and focused on teaching his students how to render the human figure.

Olpin confirms that Gittins was the most caring and committed of teachers. “After all,” Olpin comments, “he wanted [his students] to be the best too.” As a result, Gittins developed a loyal following of admirers—and emulators.

While many Gittins wanna-bes attempted to imitate his painting style, with varying degrees of success, he clearly understood that after the initial mimicking phase was over, his students would strike out in different directions, developing unique expressions of their own. What he had bequeathed to them was a fundamental knowledge of their craft that would help them do just that.

A Gittins portrait is instantly recognizable, reflecting his belief in orderliness, substance, and rationality. He captured an unerring likeness of his subject with consummate skill; yet, the flash of his brushstroke and an occasional dash of unexpected color also reveal a passionate, slightly quixotic element in his nature. His painting was the better for it, adding a signature touch that was—is—unmistakable.

Alvin Gittins, master portraitist. He rendered the subject as he saw it, but from his own particular perspective and with an incomparable facility. In the process he created an enduring bond between artist and subject that elevated both to a higher realm, giving them permanence—like the constancy of a perfect north light.

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum

*Permission to reproduce the portraits shown here was granted by the Special Collections Dept., J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Maurice Abravanel, professor of music and conductor of the Utah Symphony (oil on canvas, 1979) Although Gittins chose to depict Abravanel in a moment of pause, the portrayal is far from static. Even in repose, the maestro radiates energy and vitality. The portrait is displayed in Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City.