Here’s looking at you

There’s no question about it – I’m a “people person”. How else could I spend my days in a museum approaching total strangers and engaging them in conversation? So, when I walk through a gallery I’m most often struck by paintings that look back at me, that is to say, by portraits.

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What makes a portrait a portrait? This sounds like a “duh” question, I know, and the “duh” answer would be “a painting where a person is the focus,” right? What happens, then, when the person has their back turned to us? Is this still a portrait? The luminous painting Betty by Gerhard Richter poses this question. In the same way, how do we categorize a painting where the person is facing the viewer, but is blindfolded? Isn’t that what is so unsettling about certain paintings by Magritte (I’m thinking of The Lovers and the iconic Son of Man)? By covering the face in the first painting and by simply occluding the eyes in the second, Magritte challenges the very notion of portraiture.

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To my view, there are two basic elements essential to the portrait. One, the subject faces us (not necessarily straight-on, but the face must be visible). Two, we must be able to see the gaze (or lack thereof; a portrait of a blind person is still a portrait). One could go so far as to say that since the act of consuming a painting or of consummating its existence is effectuated through the eyes, through vision, that portraits are a modis operandi for the visitor, a sort of visual demonstration of what one should do while at the museum.

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It turns out that I’m not alone in my predilection for portraits: roughly sixty percent of the people I’ve interviewed at the Art Institute say they prefer them. Why? Erin from Ohio said that portraits make her feel as if she could “reach across time and experience someone else’s life”. Robert from Minnesota is drawn to portraits for the same reasons that he prefers reading biographies: he likes to “connect with people and understand what their life is like”. Brooke, a student from Northern Illinois University, put into words a simple and altogether naïve experience that I also have in front of portraits (but am too embarrassed or snobbish to say it): she looks at the painting and sees at the same time its subject and a person who really existed; someone who might have been a friend. Indeed, every time I walk by Charles-Antione Coypel’s Portrait of Philippe Coypel and His Wife I feel as if they are beckoning me inside their 18th century apartment to talk about liberty, equality, and fraternity (over a glass of Veuve Cliquot, bien sûr).

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This brings us to perhaps the most compelling of all reasons for the power of portraits: as much as we would like to share some bubbly with the Coypels, they are long gone. Indeed, in portraits we stare at our own mortality: the paintings are there, immortal and static and we are outside of them, human and dynamic. This is why Rembrandt’s self-portraits are so moving: the process of changing, of aging, and of anticipating death finds itself depicted in painting; the permanence of the person is challenged before our eyes; Rembrandt crosses over to our side of time.

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Additional thoughts:

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When looking at Betty, think about Watteau and his profils perdus

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The Fayum portraits also mix up questions of temporality and immortality: painted while the person was living, their sole use was for burial (we were not meant to see them). Surely the fact that one’s likeness will remain after death has crossed the minds of many people who have sat for portraits, but these people were actually preparing for their death by posing.

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Finally (hang in there, dear reader), I wonder if our predisposition for searching out a face sometimes leads us to find them in unpredictable places. For instance, the Boo Radley type standing behind Gabrielle in Rêverie or Portrait of Gabrielle, the eye (some see a face) staring out from a bush in Gauguin’s Arlésiennes, and the faces in some of Courbet’s landscapes, usually in rock formations, which gives the Latin word for face, facies, even more of a punch when one considers that in geology a facies is a part of the rock that stands out, that looks different, from the rest.

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