BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
I love portraits, especially ones which give the viewer a sense of time and place. Yet while these pictures may be instructive about the home furnishings, symbolism and garb of the time, I have my doubts about the honest depiction of the human subjects.
Once upon a time, portrait artists could create whatever personas their sponsors desired (and paid for), forever defining their image for future generations, who would believe it was authentic.
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We all know that King Henry VIII was a plus-size monarch, but the many existing portraits of him don’t give us a clue that he weighed 400 pounds and had bad teeth.
Speaking of teeth, George Washington comes to mind. The most well-known image of our first president is the one Gilbert Stuart painted and Dolly Madison rescued. Washington looks dignified and healthy, with plenty of hair and no hint of his unfortunate dental situation.
It’s probably a good thing that Washington posed stoically close-lipped, considering his ill-fitting, painful dentures. People didn’t smile in those old portraits. Good, grief! Did they all have tooth aches?
After a recent museum visit, I’m not smiling either. I was dismayed to learn that Rembrandt van Ryn and his contemporaries produced quite a few portraits known as “tronies,” representations of bogus people to exhibit specific characteristics, such as wisdom, boredom, surprise and inebriation.
These fabricated images are some of the most famous portraits in the world, and I’d always believed they were of real people, not brilliantly conjectured figments of imagination.
Yes folks, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is most likely a tronie. Art historians may stubbornly continue trying to figure out who posed for that picture, but you and I are now free to concern ourselves with the price of museum admissions and the absence of free of parking spaces.
The British have something very different to worry about. It seems that the British public is upset about the new official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who is, of course, the future queen of England.
Her admirers are saying that the depiction makes her look too ordinary, too un-regal. She appears as a real live, unadulterated woman. Stop right there! The artist didn’t make her look anything. That’s how the woman looks. He painted what he saw.
Considering my dismay about the revised reality of Henry VIII and all those Dutch tronies, I’m relieved that the Kate hanging in the Royal Gallery, the Kate to be seen by her great-grandchildren’s generation, is the authentic Kate.
Her girl-next-door, homecoming-queen-runner-up face is readily recognizable all over the world, so we know what she looks like. I think that it’s swell that long after Kate makes her way to that great British portrait gallery in the sky, future generations will know what she really looked like.
Maybe the artist should have put a tiara on her head, she being a royal and all – not to mention, it’s a fact that everybody does look better in a tiara. But, c’mon British people, stop kvetching about Kate and get back to obsessing over the economy and the weather.
Back here at home, the High Museum of Art currently houses a huge exhibit about the Old West. The opening gallery displays a group of large portraits of 19th century Native American chiefs. These were official portraits, commissioned by the United States government, all carefully posed, with each chief in a distinct facial expression, headdress and upper body outfit.
Was each man in his own native dress or did the artist/photographer, or even a “stylist,” decide on the clothing and accessories? Was the garb authentic, or was it enhanced and contrived? Who determined the pose of each chief? In other words, did the men really look like that, or was there an idealized image the viewer is supposed to accept? We’re forced to believe that what we see is genuine.
It’s also interesting to consider all the famous people whose portraits were made by people who never saw them. We have no depictions of William Shakespeare from his own time. We also have no idea how The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, really looked.
Did he truly wear a fantastic turban like the one in a famous later etching? Was Geoffrey Chaucer fat? Was Eleanor of Aquitaine gorgeous? Did Joan of Arc, in armor, still look like a female? Did Julius Caesar really look like a young Marlon Brando?
Let’s not omit the biblical Moses. He was brought up in Egypt where the only people who had beards were the pharaohs, and their beards were phony. So I wonder; did Moses always have that flowing beard? Were the Maccabees all handsome and well-muscled? We think we know how these people looked: you and I have the calendars to prove it.
It’s uncommon for people to have their portraits painted nowadays. It’s costly and time-consuming. That’s why G-d created fancy cameras.
My son-in-law, Alex the graphic designer, took my photograph. Because Photoshop is the senior adult’s best friend, I asked him to work his magic on my likeness for the online album of my high school reunion last year.
He did a masterful job, coloring gray hairs, brightening teeth, eradicating skin flaws, deepening dimples, smoothing wrinkles and blending two of my three chins. I was still me, but a much, much better me.
Hundreds of years from now, when everybody who ever saw me in the flesh is long gone, the alumni album will prove to one and all that I looked marvelous in 2012. Who knew that Henry VIII and I would have something in common?
Chana Shapiro has been led astray by art portraits for too long, and in order to get closer to reality, she is determined to spend more time watching the History Channel and less time in museums. She does, however, believe it was imperative to fake her alumni photo.