Recording a Likeness
A FRIEND of mine used to argue that when all the great inventions of the nineteenth century had been properly valued, that of Daguerre — photography — would rank alongside of the steam-boiler (which made possible rapid transportation by land and by sea), the application of electricity, and the microscope. I would add to this list the discovery of anaesthetics, whose boon to suffering mankind in a single day would beggar the utmost largess of Czar or Kaiser in a lifetime. Modern health (may I not even say morals, too, so far as they depend on health?) is founded on the microscope; but the usefulness of the microscope itself has been quadrupled by photography, without which a large part of the microscopist’s observations, experiments, and results could never be recorded. Photography makes possible, therefore, absolute accuracy in many fields which but yesterday were unexplored, and but a few years ago were undreamt of.
There is one province, however, in which precision, though much to be desired, has not yet been applied. That province is portraiture. Consider, first, painted portraits, and look through any series, of any period, or class of persons: you can never be sure whether their originals were large men or small. You can guess, of course, in exceptional cases, that X was a dwarf, or Y tall and slim; but you cannot tell the exact size of either.
Take Napoleon, for instance. From the portraits of him by Gros, Delaroche, and the rest, where he is alone, could you infer that his height was only five feet and a fraction of an inch ? In ordinary engravings and half-tones from original canvases you can get no clue to the truth, and you could certainly never guess whether he was larger or smaller than his marshals, or how they stood among themselves. Gilbert Stuart’s heads of the early Presidents of the United States leave you equally in the dark as to the relative proportions of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The canvases are of the same size, and so are the heads that fill them; but in reality Washington and Jefferson could not have worn the same hat. So Queen Victoria, who was below the average woman’s height, — in England, indeed, she was rather diminutive, — appears in her state portraits as a sovereign of commanding stature. And yet, to convey a proper impression of size should be an essential in portraiture.
This being true, why cannot painters devise some conventional sign to reveal at a glance whether a given portrait is heroic, life-size, or smaller ? Such a scheme could be adopted without in any way affecting the artistic requirements of the picture. Painters could easily agree on certain measurements as normal, and then indicate in each case whether they were painting above or below this standard. It certainly would offend our æsthetic sensitiveness much less to see marked inconspicuously in a lower corner of the canvas “ 7/8 ” or “ 11/16 ” or some other
scale, than it does now to have blazoned in letters of scare-head size the painters name, residence, and date across the top or bottom of the work. Until some such simple device is adopted, portraits will continue to furnish very inadequate information concerning one of the most important of man’s physical attributes.
That such an advance should not already have been made in photography and in other modern forms of pictorial reproduction, is all the more remarkable when we consider how readily these media lend themselves to precision. But, as things go, one head in a cabinet photograph may be as large as another, whether the sitter be Secretary Taft or Mayor McClellan. In other words, the wonderful potentiality for precision which the camera possesses is not availed of.
So, too, in wood-engraving (that art, the only one, which Americans had just brought to the highest state of perfection when “ process ” pictures came in to blight it) a great deal more information might be furnished by the employment of a few arbitrary, but simple, conventions. Thus the general complexion, whether blond or dark, as shown in a portrait to be engraved, might be rendered by a conventional difference of treatment. Mr. Cole can reveal to you by his masterly use of the tool the very brushwork in the painting he copies; is it not time that a master like him should have discovered some means of indicating that Macaulay’s hair was almost corn-yellow, that Tennyson’s was very dark, that Bismarck was blond and Garibaldi auburn-tawny ? If you look at the woodcuts of those celebrities, you find no clue to these vital physiological facts; you get, at most, only cranial structure and facial contours and expression. And yet in heraldry, the employment of a few conventional lines or stippling discloses at a glance the colors of an engraved coat-of-arms. Experimental psychology is constantly inventing new ways for measuring and registering the most complex human sensations, and for demonstrating the almost fatal relations between physical and psychical qualities. Cannot portraiture, in the forms I have briefly referred to, extend the scope of the testimony it brings, without in the least infringing upon the claims of art?
If it be objected that to follow the scheme here outlined, or any other, would bind painters and engravers by too many conventions, we need only reply that at bottom all imitative arts depend on a few generally accepted conventions. In painting, what are the devices for simulating distance or relief, if not conventional ? Assuredly, it is not too much to expect that such significant facts as a man’s size and complexion will not forever be ignored by whatever form of portraiture he may be represented. I hear my good friends the painters and photographers and engravers declare firmly, “ Impossible! ” but I have seen so many of yesterday’s impossibilities become to-day’s commonplaces, that I am foolhardy enough to hazard the suggestion, and to hope that to-morrow may see it carried out.