Style, Truth, and the Portrait

Style, Truth, and the Portrait

Style, Truth, and the Portrait

Style, Truth, and the Portrait

Excerpt

When we got home and were again at table with Dr. Johnson,
we talked of portraits. He agreed in thinking them
valuable in families. I wished to know which he preferred, fine portraits,
or those of which the merit is resemblance.--Johnson: "Sir, their
chief excellence is being like."--Boswell: "Are you of that opinion as to the
portraits of ancestors, whom one has never seen?"--Johnson:
"It then becomes of more consequence that they should be like: and
I would have them in the dress of the times, which makes a piece of history.
One should like to know how Rorie More looked. Truth, sir, is of
the greatest value in these things."

Boswell, Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides

We no longer have the assurance possessed by the great Dr. Johnson, though we may agree with him that the portrait, whether painted, sculptured, or written, poses more than a question of artistic form. Whether we will or not we wonder if it is a true likeness and whether the persons portrayed really looked as they appear. But even allowing the portrait painter's will to produce a true likeness, we may still ask: what is the true man? Is it what a man says or what he hides? Is it what he looks like or is he the sum of his acts? It is unwise to believe the first, for as a wit once put it, man was given language that he might hide his thoughts. But if a man is what he hides, then he is more likely to be the object of the moral essay or the novel, of prose or gossip. And if he is the sum of his acts, he will be the subject of an epic, a drama, or a eulogy. The painter and the sculptor, it would seem, are left only with what a man looks like. This, however, is not as easy to determine as might at first be supposed. And thus we find that the painter as well as the sculptor has to deal not only with physical appearance, but also, paradoxically, with what cannot readily be seen, so that the excellent portraitist had to be not only a painter but a moraliste, a connoisseur of men. For after all, man is not only what he says . . .

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