April 24, 2011

At the Met: Some Portraits

A Man with High Coloring, Egypt, 161-180 A.D., encaustic on wood.

This photograph of a panel painting, a funerary portrait meant to go on a mummy, is far from perfect, but it does give some sense of the presence and power of this modest work. Painted with wax and pigment, the brush strokes are visible as solid marks and add to the life of the image. The direct luminous gaze of dark eyes with the dark mass of curls enhance a vivid encounter. Last week, in the blog post "The Paintings on My Refrigerator", I wrote a brief comment on a Egyptian Fayum funerary portrait postcard that is hanging there. So when I went to the Met this week I visited their collection of Fayum portraits, which then gave me the idea to photograph a few other portraits in the museum.

Marble Bust of the Emperor Hadrian, Roman, A.D. 118-120 (detail).

I usually don't care for Roman sculptural portraits, finding them too realistic and cool, but as I was wandering through the Roman sculpture court, I noticed this very lively image of the emperor Hadrian. The flesh looks soft and mobile, the features animated, even the mannered handling of the hair is fresh; it is a wonderfully alive depiction.

Marble Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll, Byzantine, late 300s-early 400s, probably carved in Constantinople.

The form of this portrait is much more reserved and simplified, with the mass of headdress setting off a sensitive rendering of a determined and thoughtful woman. The head covering, scroll and robe mark her as of the aristocracy. I love the way the circular lines and mass of the head covering contrast with the delicate features of her face.

Donor figure, possibly Blanche of Navarre, wife of King Philip VI Valois; ca. 1350, French, marble with traces of paint and gilding (detail), 14 7/8 inches.

This small sculpture, a kneeling figure, probably came from an altar or a tomb. The carving is delicate and refined, with the same clarity and simplicity of form found in French medieval manuscript painting; the portrait is not generalized, but describes a particular woman.

Attributed to Aelbert van Outwater, Head of a Donor, Netherlandish, mid 15th century, oil on wood.

Rogier van der Weyden, Netherlandish, Francesco d'Este, ca. 1460, oil on wood, (detail).

Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, Netherlandish, late 15th century, oil on wood.

The Netherlandish painters have magic in their art. How they are able to paint with such precision and so much realism every fold of skin and cloth, and still have an essence of living being emerge is a mystery to me. So often precise realism can deaden a work, but these portraits are rich and vulnerably human. The gentle touch on the head of a donor by Outwater is so tender that it allows us to feel the soul of the elderly man. Francesco d'Este seems a much more reserved person, but it could be his youth that makes him seem distant. The Memling portrait is so full of kindness and thoughtfulness that he becomes a pure expression of the wisdom of age.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of the artist Tissot, ca. 1867-68; oil on canvas, 59 5/8 x 44 inches (detail).

Leaping into the 19th century, here is a detail of a painting I've long loved. The artist Tissot is surrounded by the objects in the studio; in this detail we see a painting hanging on the wall which looks like a northern European portrait from the 16th century. I love the casual energy of this portrayal, as the artist leans towards us, a tilt of the head indicating interest in what we might have to say.


  1. I so enjoy these tours of the museums you go to. I live out in the middle of nowhere. No museum. Not much art. Sigh~~ Thanks for the effort. The post before was quite beautiful with all the spring flowers too. I hope you had a great trip.

  2. 'head of a donor' - it's that hand in the background tickling the hair....
    these 'isolation' portraits are wonderful to see, and it occurs to me that being allowed to photograph in a museum is an important privilege that actually encourages us to rejuvenate the past....

  3. thanks, Lisa. Doing these tours at the Met has been great for me because I am paying attention to work I might have overlooked before.
    and rappel, I forgot to mention that the image of the donor was taken from a larger painting, so it probably showed the patron saint whose fingers are left in this image. It is a grand privilege to photograph at the Met; not all museums allow it, and it isn't allowed in any special exhibitions. I feel I have a closer connection to work I can photograph; it does come more alive to me.

  4. Thanks, Altoon -- I enjoyed spending a bit of time with each of these faces.

  5. I'm glad you liked this post Lauren.

  6. I always learn something from the way you see...