When the Eye to Eye exhibition first opened in January, I think all of us—Clark staff, and Clark visitors, regulars and “first-timers”—were genuinely blown away by the sight of so many wonderful portraits looking back at us from the gallery walls. I would find myself sneaking away from my desk whenever I had a minute to spare, for another peek at a favorite face, a splendid sleeve, an inscrutable expression or a magical passage of paint. Of course, I’m lucky, I work here, I can get from my office to Galleries 4 and 7, where the portraits are hanging, in about a minute and a half. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself coming back more slowly through the permanent collection to look at paintings I’ve known for a long time in a rather different light.
Van Dyck’s luscious Study of a Young Bearded Man has the energy and spontaneity of a “live” performance; the artist’s brush has captured the sitter’s features very convincingly, you get the feeling that you’d definitely recognize this guy if you bumped into him in a coffee shop or a bar. But the tilt of his head and the thoughtful look in his eyes might make you hesitate to strike up a conversation with him; he might not welcome someone breaking in on his introspection. The portrait of the bearded gentleman by William Merritt Chase on show in Gallery 1, makes use of the same muted colors and the paint has been handled with a similar degree of confidence, but the effect is completely different.
I have always had a special regard for David’s portraits, and the Clark’s Comte de Turenne is a particularly great example, but being able to compare this painting with Baron Gros’s sensational portrait of another successful Napoleonic soldier—the Comte de LaRiboisière—makes you realize how wonderful each of them is in their different ways. The red-headed young man in the gray fur cape—who looks much younger than his 27 years—seems to wear his heavily decorated artillery officer’s uniform with something of a swagger, like a teenager showing off a new outfit in which he knows he looks good. David’s painting is more restrained, it’s an appropriately respectful image of an older and more sober member of Napoleon’s inner circle, though the sitter’s tousled curls soften the formality somewhat.
This pairing of portraits from the exhibition with portraits from the permanent collection can be as much fun as the “spot the resemblance” game my colleagues Richard and Kathy have been playing in earlier blog entries, though it involves spending time in both the exhibition and the permanent collection to get your own eyes tuned in. Comparing Margaret Lemon’s self-confident expression with that of Elizabeth Linley in the portrait of Elizabeth and her brother by Thomas Gainsborough (which I’ve always thought was a little “assumed”—as if she’s thinking “Oh I’m so beautiful and talented, sigh…”) makes me feel relieved they lived in different centuries and were never in the same room together!
On the other hand, I can imagine the sweet-faced Girl Holding a Bouquet of Flowers, whose portrait is attributed to Girolamo Macchietti, might have got on quite well with the young woman in Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of a Lady, painted about 80 years earlier. Both seem poised on the edge of adult womanhood, excited at what the future might hold but a little apprehensive about it too.
Special exhibitions are always full of exciting discoveries and unexpected encounters with great works of art, but what we see when we visit a special exhibition can also make us look again at—and think twice about—works we think we know well. I could go on, but I’d hate to spoil the fun for you; maybe you’ll get a chance to experience both the Eye to Eye exhibition and works from the Clark’s collection for yourself, if you can get to Williamstown before the show closes on March 27th.
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.
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916), Portrait of a Man, c. 1875. Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 in. (61 x 48.3 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Gift of Asbjorn R. Lunde, 1980.43.
Antoine-Jean Gros (French, 1771–1835), Portrait of Count Honoré de La Riboisière, 1815. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (73 x 59 cm). Private collection. Photo by Glenn Castellano.
Louis Joseph Trimolet (French, 1812–1843), Deuxième Macedoine, 1841. Wood engraving, sheet: 17 11/16 x 12 1/2 in. (44.9 x 31.7 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1992.2.
Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641), Portrait of Margaret Lemon, c. 1638. Oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 19 1/2 in. (59.5 x 49.5 cm). Private collection.
Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788), Elizabeth and Thomas Linley, c. 1768. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. (69.8 x 62.3 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.955.
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.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of a Lady, c. 1490. Tempera and oil on panel, 22 1/16 x 14 13/16 in. (56.1 x 37.7 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.938.