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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.

For this reason, the National Portrait Gallery shows often present many images of the same person. "We had an exhibit of multiple images a while back," Fern said, "and we had Igor Stravinsky done by several photographers, different ages, different views. Richard Avedon got up close and showed us an old man, a sagging face, tired eyes. Arnold Newman took him from a distance, sitting at a piano: Stravinsky the musician. Irving Penn had him in a corner with his hand cupped at his ear." They are all Stravinsky, just as the Lincoln life mask, the gaunt young Lincoln, the vicious political cartoon versions of Lincoln, are all part of Abe. We are, all of us, many people.

"Then you get into iconography," the director added, "the things you put in the picture to suggest what the subject does, who he or she is." There is a portrait of Thomas Edison done when he was in France to attend the Paris Exposition of 1889. He is demonstrating his battery-powered phonograph, and there it is with its wax cylinders and all sorts of other stuff, including some electric wires.

"Look at the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington," Fern suggested, "in a plain black civilian suit, with his sword sheathed, standing by books containing the laws of the land. This is a regular American citizen. He's not wearing ermine or anything. But on the other hand, the setting is done in the European manner, the sky, the pillar, the draperies, to give a sense of grandeur. It's a compromise." Just in its visual language, the picture captures one of Washington's great dilemmas when he was first elected President. This was a new role in history, and he had to invent the part. He had to look like a leader but not like a king. Should people bow to him? Should he be called: "Your Excellency"? "Your Honor"? "Sir"?

As for Greenough's celebrated posthumous half-nude sculpture of him (it's in the National Museum of American History), the sculptor took a different tack. Evidently, there Washington was being seen as the embodiment of the Roman republic, a citizen-soldier, a Cincinnatus.

There are other traditions of iconography in portraits. If a child is shown holding calla lilies, he or she is dead and to be mourned. Signs abound in a Dutch vanitas painting (a picture about mortality), with its skulls and guttering candles. The elaborate moral tales of Vermeer are contained in necklaces and scales and the like.

Next month the National Portrait Gallery will open a show on the artistic rebels of the 1950s, mainly the Beat poets of San Francisco and the Abstract Expressionist painters of the East Coast. Picking the portraits that would best get the point across was not easy.

"There was a lot of ferment right after the war," Fern noted, "and you had these bookstores along Columbus Avenue in San Francisco and elsewhere, coffeehouses, poetry readings, published broadsheets. You had Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and their death imagery, poems about the shortness of life and how threatening it all is. We picked out the most prominent figures, the ones still being read, but there are others."

In New York the same sort of thing was happening in the visual arts, in the work of the painters Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. How to say in a picture what these people stood for?

Well, Pollock was easy. Photographs from Life magazine show him in the act of sloshing paint onto a canvas straight from the can. There are also pictures of his freckled, red-haired wife, Lee Krasner, always alongside him, seen as his satellite, for her genius was obscured by his fame for all too many years.

Another painting, of Rosenberg by Elaine de Kooning, has been featured recently in the gallery's foyer as a new acquisition. It is a perfect expression of the man who coined the phrase "action painting" depicted in an action painting by a member of the group he celebrated. "You don't have to say any more about it," Fern remarked.

Another show in the works concerns Edith Wharton and her circle. "What is interesting about her is that she represents a woman of accomplishment in a period when that wasn't so common. She was a broad-gauged person, traveled, well-read; she wrote a book on gardens, was an expert on interior decoration. Her tastes were ahead of her time: she liked simple lines, wicker furniture, openness, light, printed fabrics instead of the usual velvet drapery of the day. The problem is that there are only two or three paintings of her, two of them very young, at 8 and 16, and the rest of her portraits are mainly photographs."

But once the curators add the portraits of the people in her circle, Henry James and the stars of New York society, plus the pictures of her environment, the house in Rhode Island, the mansion in Massachusetts and so on, the many facets of Edith Wharton are evoked, going far beyond a mere facial likeness.

Fern would love to go further in the matter of artifacts. The portrait of composer Virgil Thomson by Alice Neel might be accompanied by, for example, the score of Four Saints in Three Acts.

There is still another variable in portraiture: the artist's own feelings. "You paint the President because it's a job; you paint Einstein because you admire him; you paint a friend for love. They're bound to be different in approach."

Fern is, of course, fond of the Thomas Carlyle quote: "Often I have found a Portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written 'Biographies,' as Biographies are written; or rather, let me say, I have found that the Portrait was as a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them."

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