Sometimes a photograph, a chance remark, will spark a post for my weekly blog. Particularly when I think I am running out of subjects to write about. I can also draw from a store of things written over the years, but that may not be fair. Sometimes it may be a chance remark, or something seen on my morning walk. I’ve noticed for instance that in the tiniest fissures between the cobblestones, a dandelion like yellow flower (perhaps a taraxacum) has succeeded in putting down its roots and is blossoming. One here, one there. Attempts at survival.
However I decided to write about portraits. Two things started it all off. One was a remark by my great grandniece and the other was the fact that a woman I met only briefly sent me a portrait she had made – a thoughtful gift but it led me to wonder if that was how others saw me.
Whether in writing, or drawn or painted, or captured in a photograph of one kind or another, we always seem to be dealing with portraits.
In Pirandello’s novel One, No One and a Hundred Thousand, he broached the question of how we see ourselves, of how others see us. Every person gets a different version of someone. And in real life, we all show different sides of ourselves to those we encounter. Who I am to myself, can never be quite how the next person views me. No two people see us the same way. Portraits are slippery things, whether in words or drawn or painted, or in photographs.
A portrait is so much more than simply the transcription of physical features. It is a reflection of the spirit, of the soul if you like. It is another person’s impression, depending on the moment captured, on the individual criteria.
Is it you seen as a specific type or person? Does it reflect who you really are? Or at least who you think you are or would like to be? A portrait of a moment in time, of a mood.
The purpose of a portrait throughout history has varied. I could write a doctoral thesis on the portrait and I wonder how many have already been written.
Generally, a portrait is meant to present the sitter as a man of culture, or as a warrior to incur fear. It might be a symbol of power. A status symbol. Included in the painting would be a book or a statue testifying to travels and identifying the person as a man of culture, or referring to specific interests, perhaps botany, or marks of a profession.
Some people seem to have a clear idea of their appearance and accept what might be considered an unflattering portrait. I find it amazing that Goya could show his patrons with all their defects and get away with it. It is said that Holbein made Anne of Cleves more attractive than she actually was and Henry the 8th was disappointed with his future bride when he actually met her. Which led to an annulment.
A portrait might be a stand-in for the actual individual. An image. A likeness.
Which is perhaps why in some populations a photograph is thought to steal the identity of an individual. Which is also perhaps why we are loath to destroy a picture, a photograph, of someone loved or hated, even if we have innumerable copies stuffed into the envelopes in our drawers.
Then there are portraits that tell us of other times, of people we may have known, or perhaps not. A portrait of our past, of times gone by.
Now, in the twenty-first century– there is a superabundance of portraits, of selfies. Most perhaps are not interested in portraying the individual as they are as in telling us – “look I was here”.
So, to return to the portrait, let us ask ourselves if this is as others see us, or as we see ourselves, or as we would like others to see us. And then there are the portraits not of ourselves as individuals, but of moments that we hope to return to. All portraits are in a sense fleeting moments, and as the clock ticks on we somehow always try to remember what once was.
5 thoughts on “Portraits”
When you told me you were thinking about writing something on portraits i was curious about what your approach would be. I should have known you would take several— art historical, personal, psychological. As i recall our talk at blu bar, i got hung up on the boundary between the subject’s views and, being a lawyer, rights to the image, and the portraitist’s interests and motives, and i got no further. You did. It’s a great piece and has engendered more ideas which will, i hope, sustain my brain while i scrub the floors at the cabin today. Of course the fleeting ideas will not be so interesting as they pass through as when you and i can exchange them. I do miss our conversation, email is okay but the spark can’t be caught in writing. I love the anecdote about anne of cleves. Perhaps she owed her head to holbein. I love the foto, the girl— she seems a girl— on the right of the viewer especially. She’s beautiful of course, but more than that, contemplative, as though she is composing an image of herself in her mind that is projected onto the camera, creating herself in her own image, apart from her companions, held in her own space somehow. And i adore her jacket! Ah, how clothes make, or not, a portrait. Anyway, missing home, porano and orvieto, the garden. Only a week of exile and it feels like ages. Hope all is well. Scritch teah’s ears for me. Much love, margaret
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How very true that today we live with a superabundance of portraits – and how this contrasts with the human experience down the millennia! My wife and I have noticed through our family how many young people now fight shy of have their portrait taken (I mean by camera) and this seems to be because they don’t wish to see pictures of them floating far and wide through the internet, out of control, potentially becoming a source of embarrassment later. Strange times.
Interesting. Seems to me more “portraits” or snapshots are being taken all the time and one finds them all over the place. I guess most of them don’t go on internet, might just be exchanged between them- But what are all these selfies for? It can of course be nice to know what a person looks like (or sometimes what the dinner dish or dessert looks like!)
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I really like how you tied together Pirandello’s One, No One and a Hundred Thousand into this post and the concept that every person gets a different version of someone. I remember during my first semester in college, at the end of the year my professor had us do an activity where each person in the classroom had to go around the room and name three positive things about one another. When it came to me, I was quite surprised at what my peers had to say about me and the impressions that I made on them. While I got remarks such as “intelligent” and “helpful”, quite a few people also said that I was “confident” and “organized” which are adjectives that I’d NEVER use to describe myself! To myself, I feel quite shy and sometimes unsure, but since then, even with my year of teaching, I’ve received many comments from students and professors who’ve remarked on my confidence and assertiveness. Though to me, my confidence feels like a façade, for others who see me, it is simply who I am. It is interesting to learn how others view you, whether that’s through words, a photo, or a drawing. I love how this post has me looking at it from all angles.
I’ve really enjoyed getting up in the morning, doing my 10 minute deep breathing exercise, sitting down with a cup of coffee and listening to or reading your posts. Most recently, Portraits and Reflections on a Train. You have such an evocative way of making extraordinary the ordinary.
I hope you had a wonderful time with Michelle and are staying cool,