We Boast of What We Have Not


SOME years ago there was exhibited in the city of New York a very remarkable picture. As to its unique character the critics were all agreed. It is true, the authenticity of the picture was vehemently disputed by some, and as warmly espoused by others. While the history furnished by the exhibitor failed to satisfy the captious because of its incompleteness, as might be supposed, this very incompleteness gave ground for added emphasis of belief on the part of those who still viewed the picture as an authentic portrait of Charles I. painted by Velasquez. Imprimis, it was undoubtedly a rare work of art, by whomsoever painted, and this even to least details. The eye of the portrait, for instance, when examined through a convenient magnifying glass in the hands of the exhibitor, was wonderfully human and lifelike, especially in its imperfections, these being precisely the ones which, to the experienced, would be looked for in an eye of that color and setting. In the foreground of the portrait was a large globe over which a scarf had been carelessly thrown. This device, the exhibitor averred, bore distinct reference to a remark made by an eminent statesman of that day, in view of a contemplated marriage between the king of England and a Spanish princess, — a marriage which was to unite two of the most powerful nations of Europe : “ With Spain and England united, we may divide the world.”

The background of this picture was painted with notable skill and fidelity (another reason for attributing the picture to Velasquez, as the works of his contemporaries, even of Murillo himself, were often unfinished). It is of this background that I wish to speak. With the consummate touch which gave token of the master, whoever he might be, a small episode of war, half obscured in smoke, was discernible in the far distance. There was delineated, or suggested, the usual array of gallant knights “ riding to joyous battle in a storm of steeds ; ” a confusion of shivering lances, broken brands, and reeling banners, — all dimly descried by the spectator, yet cunningly suggesting the idea that they were part and parcel of the experience of the hero himself. On asking the enthusiastic exhibitor what was the presumable purpose of this background, he replied, with the confidence of pseudoscience: “ Why, it is introduced for the purpose of relieving the too placid monotony of Charles’s features. So good a picture of so good a man, painted with too much fidelity, might seem tame. You see, the portrait needs a background of bloody fiction to give it symmetry as a work of art.”

In recalling this incident, it has often seemed equally applicable (names being changed) to a large number of subjects in the live portrait gallery of my past and current experience. The mild-mannered Charles would always be offset by a romantic projection or mirage of Charles as the scourge of God and minister of vengeance. Not alone does the temperamentally timid wish us to believe that he is on occasion desperately courageous, but the naturally gracious often affects bluffness, the dove asks to be credited with serpentine wisdom, and the sheep even would don the wolf’s attire. In fact, whatever we are, we crave the strange privilege of being taken with a certain small amount of the haul goût of contrariety. Remembering this perverse tendency of our common human nature, and that this tendency is, perhaps, most generously developed in the young, should I not have forbearance towards — nay, a certain sympathy with — the meadow - faced boy who would have me believe him to be a “ devil of a fellow,” even while his own ears are startled by the sound of his “ thrasonic brag ” ?