The Fishing Lesson
a watercolor portrait by Sharon A. Hart
Many years ago I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the Art Worker’s Guild Hall at No. 6 Queen Square, London WC1. The hall was designed by F.W. Troup and built in the 1913-14 and is a testament to the best quality of craftsmanship of the period. The entire experience harkened back to an earlier and more formal time, as we were immersed in a traditional, somewhat quaint, environment , induced by sitting on heavy wooden ladder-backed, rush seated Clissett chairs, based on a design by Ernest Gimson.
My mind and eyes wandered during a talk that made most of the attendees slip into ennui; around the wall are painted the names of Guildsmen since 1884: white when still with us, gilded when not in niches sit busts of some of the founders, while the walls are covered with portraits of the Guild’s Past-Masters. Having a slightly perverse nature and not immediately recognizing any of the Masters by their portraits, I envisioned alternative non-arts related careers for the host of illuminated talents. When the prayed-for intermission finally arrived, I surveyed the room anew, discovering the actual identities of the past Masters. To my sensibilities’ horror, the man I had cast in the role of a libertarian accountant was the esteemed Walter Crane, book illustrator who is considered one of the strongest contributors to the child's nursery motif of the latter 19th century. Crane’s presence in the Art Worker’s Guild Hall is significant, especially when you become full aware that the symbol above the Master’s chair, designed by Walter Crane bears the motto ‘Art is Unity.’
When I think about portraits, this is the primary experience that colors my understanding of their impact and the truths about human nature the artform can convey. As Aristotle stated, “The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.”
The history of portraiture is rich and has its origins in funerary commemoration; the first representations of identifiable individuals date from the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt about 3100 BC. Early Christian art, dating from the 3rd century to the 7th century, included portraits in mosaic and stylized imago clipeatae that convey authority. This portrayal of “authority” and social stature was later more fully embraced during the Renaissance, and the artistic Baroque and Rococo periods (17th century and 18th century, respectively.) It wasn’t until the mid-19th Century when the realist artists began to create objective portraits of “the common people.” I suspect that this turn in approach was partially due to the philosophy expressed by William Morris, “You cannot educate, you cannot civilise man, unless you give him a share in art.”
The focus on portraiture as an art form has waned over the years, but there has been a resurgence in the number of artists who specialize in portraying perceptive images of individuals, as well as pets. The Australian artist, Kim Barker, recently announced a contest on her blog, Lake Trees, which will award the winner with a portrait of their choice, .painted in acrylic and valued at $6,000+ .
This past summer, the author Stephen King published Duma Key, a tale of conflict between the forces of horror and the redemptive power of creativity. It tells the story of a man who has seemingly lost his way in modern life and retreats to a Florida island to regain his sense of self. Amazingly, out of nowhere, he starts drawing and painting, producing sketches and surreal landscapes. His landlady, provides enigmatic awareness into what is happening to her tenant. "Art is memory, Edgar There is no simpler way to say it."
While I’ve never been a fan of Gothic or Horror fiction, King’s work engaged me with insights such as this:
Start with a blank surface. It doesn't have to be paper or canvas, but I feel it should be white. We call it white because we need a word, but its true name is nothing. Black is the absence of light, but white is the absence of memory, the color of can't remember. How do we remember to remember? That's a question I've asked myself often since my time on Duma Key, often in the small hours of the morning, looking up into the absence of light, remembering absent friends. Sometimes in those little hours I think about the horizon.
You have to establish the horizon. You have to mark the white. A simple enough act, you might say, but any act that re-makes the world is heroic. Or so I’ve come to believe.
King draws on Faustian concepts such as those Oscar Wilde introduced in his classic Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the tale, the primary character is the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, wishing that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging. I suspect that Wilde was aware of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Aesthetics in which the author raged against “Almost repulsively lifelike portraits,” insisting that portrait-painters flatter their subject, paying less attention to outward appearance, but “Presenting us with a view which emphasizes the subject’s general character and lasting spiritual qualities.” According to this philosophy, it was the spiritual nature that should determine our picture of the human being.
Artists have long transformed their subjects in the alembic of the artist’s imagination, whether or not they were painting actual likenesses. They have taken liberties while still embracing aesthetic points of view. A good example of this is found in the melancholic portrait of Queen Charlotte by the Georgian master, Thomas Lawrence. Queen Charlotte, who sat for Lawrence in 1789 to 90. She had lost her her husband, George III, to madness and their son seemed to offer the monarchy a poor future. Lawrence captures all the nuances of the historic period and the inner grief of Queen Charlotte, yet still conveys her majesty and beauty.
Another individual who reveled in having her portrait painted was Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth. She was very proud of her beautiful hands; she considered them her best feature and took pains to have them prominently displayed in all of her state portraits. In 1546, the portrait-painter, William Scrots sent a portrait of Elizabeth as a gift to Elizabeth's half-brother, King Edward VI. In the letter accompanying the gift, Elizabeth wrote:
'For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present. ....when you shall look on my picture you will witsafe to think that as you have but the outward shadow of the body before you, so my inward mind wisheth that the body itself were oftener in your presence.'
Another portrait of Elizabeth, painted when she was in her late sixties, portrays a young and beautiful Queen, seemingly ageless and immortal. It’s a classic Tudor portrayal by Isaac Oliver (c1600), weaving allegory and symbolism with each brushstroke. Here is an exegeis of the painting from an Elizabethan scholar who has spent time studying the painting:
Elizabeth's gown is embroidered with English wildflowers, thus allowing the queen to pose in the guise of Astraea, the virginal heroine of classical literature. Her cloak is decorated with eyes and ears, implying that she sees and hears all. Her headdress is an incredible design decorated lavishly with pearls and rubies and supports her royal crown. The pearls symbolize her virginity; the crown, of course, symbolizes her royalty. Pearls also adorn the transparent veil which hangs over her shoulders. Above her crown is a crescent-shaped jewel which alludes to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon. A jeweled serpent is entwined along her left arm, and holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby. Above its head is a celestial sphere. The serpent symbolizes wisdom; it has captured the ruby, which in turn symbolizes the queen's heart. In other words, the queen's passions are controlled by her wisdom. The celestial sphere echoes this theme; it symbolizes wisdom and the queen's royal command over nature. Elizabeth's right hand holds a rainbow with the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' ('No rainbow without the sun'). The rainbow symbolizes peace, and the inscription reminds viewers that only the queen's wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity.
To my knowledge, few modern portrait painters incorporate symbolism at this level. Additionally, artists such as Lucian Freud have abandoned the pretense of flattery and have often provided unsympathetic portrayals of their subjects.
In my opinion, the artist’s search of honesty in their portraits doesn’t require negative reflections, as one can always find an artful truthfulness in the dignity of the individual. For example, Annie Leibovitz used her camera to create a sensitive portrait of Britain's aging Queen Elizabeth seated in an unlit room in Buckingham Palace, that is highly reminiscent of Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte.
There is little in my past that I regret. However, I occasionally lament the fact that I failed to paint portraits of my children while they were young. An exception is found in my painting “The Fishing Lesson.” In the same way that the earlier Queen Elizabeth insisted that the paintings of her later years would convey her as a young woman, portraits capture a specific moment in time that can be returned to each time one gazes upon the work. Indeed, art is memory and can alchemically transform the past into the present.