One of the appealing characteristics of a painted portrait is that it brings the personality of the sitter to life right before our eyes. This is true even if we don’t know the identity of the sitter.
In fact, sometimes it’s better if we don’t know who is represented, because then we can project onto the image our own musings and interpretations based on any number of factors—the person’s expression, the tilt of the head, the play of hands (if they are included), even the clothing.
Of course, knowing some historical details—like the name of the sitter or the artist, the time and place the portrait was painted, and so on—can also color our understanding and engagement with these faces. Whatever the individual issues raised by the portraits in Eye to Eye, it’s remarkable to me how alive they all are, demanding that we pay attention to them and invent, if not rediscover, what they’re about. But in the end it is the familiarity of these people, their sheer vividness, that attract us, and make us (almost) believe we know them.
One example of how this can play out: as we were researching the pictures for the catalogue, and then installing the exhibition at the Clark, we began to play a little parlor game, matching up the portraits in Eye to Eye with celebrity faces (invariably movie stars), in the mode of the “separated at birth” comparisons sometimes seen in the popular press. Some of these were more convincing than others. Take a look and see what you think.
I’ll be the first to admit that this one (Ambrosius Benson’s Portrait of a Man by a Window compared to Paul Giamatti) seemed better as an idea than as a really good comparison. But there was something about the mischievous look on Benson’s man that reminded me of Giamatti—not to mention the broad nose and scraggly beard.
Van Dyck’s study of an anonymous young man seemed a dead ringer for Willem Dafoe, and I even found a good photo of Dafoe that mimics the angle of the head. On closer inspection the bridge of the nose is wrong, but the drawn, rugged physiognomy and the air of intensity are pretty similar in both faces.
We all agreed that this was a good one: Rubens’s Portrait of a Young Man seems the spitting image of Steve Buscemi. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t find a photo of Buscemi wearing a mill ruff, and he’s looking unusually pasty (even for him) in this picture, but it’s still a pretty uncanny likeness, IMO, despite the age difference.
The sweet vulnerability expressed in the lovely portrait of a young woman attributed to the sixteenth-century Florentine painter Girolamo Macchietti called to my mind Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, though I have to admit the hair is all wrong in this photo. But the shape of the face, the full rose-bud lips, and the slightly terrified expression of the eyes collapse the centuries between these two images of girls entering young adulthood.
Bernini’s quick sketch of a head is said to represent his brother Domenico, but I thought there was something about this guy that reminded me of Hilary Swank. So finding a good image of Swank in her Oscar-winning role in Boy’s Don’t Cry, in which she passes for much of the film as a young man, seemed particularly appropriate. Sorry for the weird blueish tint to the photo, but I think the jaw line, the full red lips, and the strong nose are dead on.
This is without doubt the silliest, but in some ways the most satisfying of them all. The trick is to focus on the ringlets, not so easily discernible in this photo of the Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Lira da bracio by a still-unknown sixteenth-century Italian painter, the long face, and the somewhat vacuous good looks. I used this album cover from Frampton’s “I’m in You” album for the obvious (and slightly unfair) reason that it also includes hands holding a stringed instrument.
Now I invite you to take a look at the Eye to Eye images again and suggest your own comparisons in the comments below!
Ambrosius Benson (Netherlandish, active by 1519–1550), Portrait of a Man at a Window, c. 1530. Oil on panel, 16 x 12 in. (41 x 30.5 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641), Study of a Young Bearded Man, c. 1618–19. Oil on paper laid down on panel, 16 11/16 x 15 1/8 in. (42.4 x 38.4 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1613–15. Oil on panel, 26 x 20 1/2 in. (66 x 52 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Attributed to Girolamo Macchietti (Italian, 1535–1592), Portrait of a Girl Holding a Bouquet of Flowers, c. 1570s. Oil on panel, 23 x 17 1/2 in. (58.5 x 44.5 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italian, 1598–1680), Portrait of the Artist’s Brother, Domenico Bernini (?), c. 1630–35. Oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 14 x 10 7/16 in. (35.5 x 26.5 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Italian, artist unknown, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Lira da braccio, c. 1510-20. Oil on panel, 30 7/16 x 21 7/8 in. (78.4 x 55.5 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.