By Kathleen Morris, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts and Co-Curator of Eye to Eye
As Richard has so forcefully pointed out in his last blog entry, the faces we see in portraits inevitably evoke our own experience. It is human nature to look at a face and find a way to categorize it, judge it, and classify it within the universe of our understanding. No doubt in a highly individual way, a face can remind us of someone we have hated, feared, idolized, or loved. We make mental notes of this sort all of the time, and sometimes express them out loud—“you remind me of someone,” we will say to a new acquaintance. This experience can create a frisson of excitement or conjure a strong memory at unexpected times.
At times Jane Austin has her protagonists, swept up in passionate longing, attempt to “sketch the likeness” of their absent love in the features of a family member. This is perhaps the sweetest application of the search for familiarity within the features of our fellow men.
As we installed the show, my own sympathies were often caught up in what I thought I could perceive of the specific personality of the person portrayed. I grieved over the short life of Elizabeth of Valois, knowing that despite being born to extreme wealth, this came with a price that few of us are called upon to pay—she was a pawn in a political game of the highest stakes, and was married to the much-older Phillip II of Spain in a way that was “business, not personal.” I hope she was happy for the brief time between her marriage at age 15 and her death in childbirth at age 23. She looks so frail and vulnerable in the portrait by Coello. Doesn’t she, to some extent, call to mind Lindsey Lohan, also favored by fortune yet besieged by the realities of life? Here, Lindsey looks equally aware of her position as a type of “royalty.”
On a lighter note, we call this portrait “Avatar lady.” There is something about the preternatural length of her neck, the slightly alien squareness of form, and the long, flattened face that reminds us of our blue friend. ’Nuff said.
It strikes me that this young man, portrayed here with fashionable long hair and informal dress, may mature into a wise-cracking, hard-boiled character. Or in other words, Bruce Willis.
Parmigianino created a portrait of a man who appears to be slightly disgruntled at our presence. Glowering through dark eyes that also communicate a sense of superiority, he calls to my mind Keanu Reeves in his portrayal of Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, proclaiming: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.” Here is Keanu not as Don John, but looking equally stormy.
In the end, of course, all is not doom and gloom, and there are always those who will remind us of life’s more fleeting pleasures. Cranach offers us a woman high-coiffed, garmented, and preened, simultaneously on display, yet completely self-possessed. Hmm. Her attitude and level of polish remind me of Gwen Stefani. Who can resist either woman?
(With apologies to John) There are faces we remember all our lives, though some have changed; some forever, not for better; some are gone, and some remain. We will continue to appreciate the paintings in our show for what they are—masterpieces of portraiture—and who they represent— vibrant human beings from other times and places.
At the same time, we’ll continue to let them suggest faces familiar to us from our own times, thereby deepening our sympathetic connection to personalities captured by masterful brushes.
Alonso Sanchez Coello (Spanish, c. 1531–1588), Portrait of Elizabeth de Valois, c. 1560. Oil on panel, 18 1/2 x 16 in. (47 x 40.6 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Michele Tosini (Italian, 1503–1577), Portrait of a Lady, c. 1560s. Oil on panel, 31 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (79.4 x 59.1 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Attributed to Dosso Dossi (Italian, c. 1486– 1542), Portrait of a Man, c. 1510–15. Oil on panel, 12 x 9 1/16 in. (30.5 x 23 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Parmigianino (Italian, 1503–1540), Portrait of a Man, c. 1530. Oil on canvas, 35 x 26 3/4 in. (88.9 x 68 cm). Private collection.
Lucas Cranach, the Elder (German, 1472–1553), Portrait of a Young Woman Holding Grapes and Apples, 1528. Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 32 1/8 x 21 5/8 in. (81.6 x 55 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.