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Around the Mall & Beyond

Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery, offers his insights on the art of reading a portrait

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The other day I got a lesson in how to look at a portrait — not a simple matter — from a certified authority, Alan M. Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery. "Reading a portrait is in a way just as demanding as reading a text," he said. "It can also be an immediate and human experience."

Take the costume. I had heard of the itinerant artists in Colonial America who, for a price, would paint your portrait, giving you at a stroke a gorgeous gown or suit you never owned. (Novelty photographers on the boardwalk still do it with comic settings.)

This practice was developed to a high degree of sophistication: the subject was shown a number of costumes and scenes into which he or she could be painted. In his museum office, Fern was explaining a lot of recent scholarship to me, so he pulled out a book to show me a portrait of a Mrs. Bowers by John Singleton Copley. Here was an American woman of substance, resplendent in a billowing satin gown with a pug dog on her lap. Then Fern showed me another portrait, this time of a Briton, Lady Caroline Russell. Guess what? Same gown, same pose, same dog, different artist. When he painted Mrs. Bowers, Copley had "borrowed" his entire composition from Joshua Reynolds.

"If you're doing historical research in clothing fashions," Fern said, "you want to be careful about making judgments about what people actually wore."

The issue of authenticity of fashion is one thing; body language is another.

"Go around the gallery and there are all kinds of things you begin to see. There is the whole business of a pose and what it shows about a person."

Think of Napoleon with his hand inside his vest. For generations after that, men all over the world, and especially Civil War generals, had their portraits painted with the hand in the vest.

Think of Boldini's famous portrait of the ineffable Comte Robert de Montesquiou, a model for Proust's Baron de Charlus, one of literature's most wonderfully outrageous characters. Here is Montesquiou, with his waxed mustache and wasp-waisted morning coat, examining the head of his cane, which he holds like a violin in his elegant long fingers. It is the very image of vanity and arrogance. Contrast that with, say, a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant: whomever he sat for, he was the same — stolid, unshakable, direct. (Once when Grant was sitting for Mathew Brady, a shower of thick glass fragments fell from the studio ceiling and landed inches from his chair with a shattering crash. Reportedly, Grant never blinked.)

Fern showed me some other variations: Dashiell Hammett holding himself in, his arms wrapped inside the contour of his figure, giving him a sense of containment, a sense that one could never penetrate to his core. On the other hand, there was Douglas MacArthur, portrayed as a windblown extrovert "coming over the top — as he would have painted himself," said Fern.

A biographer has all the time and space in the world to get across every nuance of the subject's personality and history. The portraitist, whether in painting, sculpture, photography or drawing, gets only one shot. And people change — in age at the very least, and surely in many other ways as well.

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