Rowse's Portrait of Emerson/Durand's Portrait of Bryant/Barry's Portrait of Whittier
Published in Photograph. Boston : Williams & Everett.
Engraved by the Century Club.. New York : Published by
Published in Photograph. Boston : Brainard.
ALMOST one of the lost arts is that of portraiture. Raised by Titian and his contemporaries to the position of one of the noblest walks of Art, and in the generations following depressed to the position of minister to vanity and foolish pride, it has remained, during the most of the years since, one of the lowest and least reputable of the fields of artistic labor. The lost vein was broken into by Reynolds and Gainsborough, who left a golden glory in all they did for us ; but no one came to inherit, and in England no one has since appeared worthy of comparison with them. In all Europe there is no school of portraiture worth notice ; the so-called portrait-painters are only likeness-makers, comparing with the true portraitist as a topographical draughtsman does with a landscape artist. The intellectual elements of the artistic character, which successful portraiture insists on, are some of its very greatest,-if we admit, as it seems to us that we must, that imagination is not strictly intellectual, but an inspiration, an exaltation of the whole nature. To paint a great man, one must not merely comprehend that he is great, but must in some sense rise up by the side of, and sympathize with, his greatness,-must enter into and identify himself with some essential quality of his character, which quality will be the theme of his portrait. So it inevitably follows that the greatness of the artist is the limitation of his art,- that he expresses in his work himself as much as his subject, but no more of the latter than he can comprehend and appreciate.
The distinction between the true and the false portraitist is that between expression of something felt and representation of something seen; and as the subtilest and noblest part of the human soul can only be felt, as the signs of it in the face can be recognized and translated only by sympathy, so no mere painter can ever succeed in expressing in its fulness the character of any great man. The lines in which holiest passion, subtilest thought, divinest activity have recorded in the face their existence and presence, are hieroglyphs unintelligible to one who has not kindled with that passion, been rapt in that thought, or swept away in sympathy with that activity ; he may follow the lines, but must certainly miss their meaning. A successful portrait implies an equality, in some sense, between the artist and his Original. The greatest of artists fail most completely in painting people with whom they have no sympathy, and only the mechanical painter succeeds alike with all,- the fair average of his works being a general levelling of his subjects ; the great successes of the genuine artist being as surely offset (if one success can find offset in a thousand failures) by as absolute and extreme failure.
As regards portraiture in general, the public may, without injury to Art or history, employ the painters who make the prettiest pictures of them ; it doesn’t matter to the future, if Mr. Jenkins, or even the Hon. Mr. Twaddle, has employed the promising Mr. Mahlstock to perpetuate him with a hundred transitory and borrowed graces,-if the talented young littérateur, Mr. Simeuh, has been found by his limner to resemble Lord Byron amazingly, and has in consequence consented to sit for a half-length, to be done àla Corsair, etc., etc. ; but for our men of thought, for those whose works will stand to all time as the signals pointing out the road a nation followed, whose presence and acts shall be our intellectual history, -it is of some little moment that these should be given to us in such visible form, that men shall not conjecture, a thousand years hence, if Emerson were really a man, or a name under which some metaphysical club chose to publish their philosophics. In psychological history, portraits are as necessary as dates; and one of the most valuable gifts to an age is a great portraitpainter,-a Titian, a Gainsborough, a Reynolds, or a Page,-which last has more of the Titianesque character than any one who has painted since the great Venetians lived, and few, indeed, are the generations so endowed.
Beside this full insight and representation of character, which makes the ideal portraiture, we have the less complete, but only in degree less valuable, apprehension which results from a point of sympathy, a likeness of liking in one or more fields of thought, a common sensitiveness, a common interest; and the rarer sympathy between artist and subject, of that intimacy and complete understanding of personal character, which, even where no great talent exists in the artist, gives a unique value to his work, but which, where the intimacy is that of great minds, gives us works on which no dilettanteism, even, makes a criticism,--as in that portrait of Dante by Giotto, to our mind the portrait par excellence of past time.
In the three admirable portraits whose titles stand at the head of our notice, we have in one way and another all of the conditions we have spoken of fulfilled. Rowse’s portrait of Emerson is one of the most masterly and subtile records of the character of a signal man, nay, the most masterly, we have ever seen. Those who know Emerson best will recognize him most fully in it. It represents him in his most characteristic mood, the subtile intelligence mingling with the kindly humor in his face, thoughtful, cordial, philosophic. The portrait is not more happy in the comprehension of character than in the rendering of it, and is as masterly technically as it is grandly characteristic. An eminent English poet, who knows Emerson Well, says of it, justly,-It is the best portrait I have ever seen of any man ”; and we say of it, without any hesitation, that no living man, except, perhaps, William Page, is capable, at his best moment, of such a success.
In Barry’s portrait of Whittier it is easy to see the points of contact between the characters of the artist and the poetsubject, in the sensitiveness shown in the lines of the mouth in the drawing, in the delicacy of organization which has wasted the cheek and left the eye burning with undimtned brilliancy in the Sunken socket, the fervent, earnest face, defying age to affect its expressiveness, as the heart it manifests defies the chill of time. It is an exceedingly interesting drawing, and one by which those who love the poet are willing to have him seen by the future. It must remain as the only and sufficient record of Whittier’s personnel.
In the portrait of Bryant we have the results of an intimacy of the most cordial kind, of years’ duration,-an almost absolute unity of sentiment and similarity of habits of regarding the things most interesting to each. if nearly the same age, Bryant and Durand have grown old together, loving the same Nature, and regarding it with the same eyes, - the painter catching inspiration from the poet’s themes, and the poet in turn getting new insight into the mystery of the outer world through the painter's eyes. Bryant’s face has been a Sphinx's riddle to out best painters; none have succeeded in rendering its severe simplicity, and clear, self-disciplined expression, until Durand tried it with a success which renders the picture interesting evermore as a tribute of friendship as well as a Solution of a difficult problem. The artist’s hand was directed by a more than ordinary understanding of the lines it drew ; it has not varied in a line from reverence for the verisimilitude the world had a right to insist on ; it has not flattered or softened, but is simply, completely, absolutely, true. Bryant's face has an immovable tranquillity, a reserve and impassiveness, which yet are not coldness; the clear gray eye calmly looks through and through you, but permits no intelligence of what is passing behind it to come out to you. It is such a face as one of the old Greek kings might have had, as he sat administering justice. All this, it seems to us, Durand’s picture gives. It looks out at you impassive, penetrating, as though it would hear all and tell nothing, — a strong, self-continent, completely balanced character,—unshrinking, unyielding, yet without being unseiisitive, —concentrated, justly poised, and intense, without being passionate. The head is admirably engraved, though we do not at all fancy the way in which the background is done; it is heavy, formal, and unartistic, —but this may be matter of choice.