Portrait of Me


WHEN a charming lady, skillful at portrait-painting, invites a modest gentleman to sit for his portrait, there is really nothing for the modest gentleman to do but thank the lady kindly, and sit. It is, for one thing, no ordinary, everyday experience, common to everybody, though more so (to imagine an imperfect analogy) than an unsolicited invitation from a tailor to have a suit of clothes made for him, which the tailor will then keep. In both cases the modest gentleman would be asked to assist disinterestedly in perfecting the skill of a fellow mortal in a chosen calling, his reward the thought that this painter would paint better portraits, or this tailor make better clothes, for practising on him. Few are painted and none, that ever I heard of, measured under these conditions.

Yet the first reaction of the modest gentleman — and I speak from experience — is to assume himself unworthy of so unexpected a compliment, as he foolishly considers it, to his personal appearance. He must needs begin by raising silly objections, and so stands, as it were, first on one foot and then on the other, bashfully sucking his thumb while pretending to regard the lady’s intention as an ill-considered waste of good pigment that might better be used in painting a pretty composition of a squash, a tomato, and a bunch of carrots. Oh, nonsense — nonsense! If the lady wishes to paint him, she has her reasons, the most important of which may be that he is so lacking in the more obvious aspects of pictorial beauty that to paint him at all will interest her as much as doing a crossword puzzle might interest somebody else.

So, for all I know, Dr. Samuel Johnson — no Adonis either — may have felt and acted when invited to sit for his portrait by Mrs. Frances Reynolds, Sir Joshua’s sister; and that he was invited I take for granted because, like me, he could hardly afford to run about paying people to paint him. Boswell mentions the portrait, but unfortunately did not ask the doctor how he felt and what he thought during the sittings. We know his opinion of women painters in general. ‘ Public practice of any art,’ so he once remarked to his biographer, ‘and staring in men’s faces is very indelicate in a female.’

But I, who come later, know more about such human reactions than Dr. Johnson, in whose library Mrs. Reynolds would have found no volume of our modern psychology, and in whose bright lexicon there was no such word as ‘psychoanalysis.’ What Dr. Johnson thought he thought, he thought he thought; and no wise savant had penetrated deeply enough into the relationship between his conscious and his subconscious mind to tell him that what he thought he thought — for example, that it was a bother to sit for his portrait to Mrs. Reynolds — was often a childish form of self-deception, and that what he really thought was the direct opposite.

There is in all of us, as the family psychologist might now explain to him, a primitive instinct to think well of ourselves, and to wish others to agree with this opinion, that cannot but be deeply touched by anybody who wishes to paint our portraits. Subconsciously we rejoice; we are glad; we kick up our heels. Consciously we restrain ourselves. If it were not for another and opposing instinct — an absurd, hypocritical assumption of modesty slowdy acquired during centuries of civilization, a fear within us that the envious herd with which we live may be antagonized by our superiority — we would fall on the artist’s neck, male or female, in an ecstasy of delight. Then, indeed, it would be indelicate in a female to ask a gentleman to sit for his portrait. And there is no sensible reason to be ashamed of this instinct, for without it our remote and abhorrent ancestors must have remained forever in a remote and abhorrent condition of suspended evolution. That they would not have known the difference makes such a condition even worse.

So, having gone through the preliminary motions, I thanked the lady kindly, and said I would sit.

Now the first point to be settled in sitting for your portrait is to decide just how you will sit: will you, for instance, sit standing up or sit sitting down? And in either case, up or down, in which of the many easy and graceful attitudes habitual to you in daily life will you now sit? It was decided that I should sit sitting; a chair was placed on a little platform called a ‘throne’; I ascended the throne, and I sat down on the chair.

I was then told to cross my right leg over my left, fold my arms, tilt my chin, and look at the ceiling; to cross my left leg over my right, put my hands in my pockets, depress my chin, and look at my left foot; to hold my left ankle with my right hand, put my left hand behind my neck, turn my head to the right, and look out of the window; to stretch both legs straight, lean back in my chair, rest my left elbow on my right palm, support my chin with my left thumb, turn my head to the left, and look at the fireplace; to separate my feet widely, lean forward, clasp my hands between my knees, and look at the floor; to put my right foot on the front rung of the chair, my left foot on my right foot, my right hand, palm up, on my left knee, my left elbow on the palm of my right hand, my chin on the index finger of my left hand, and look at nothing in particular — a dreamy pose. Indeed, as you will observe, these are all simple and easy poses such as a modest gentleman assumes naturally when he sits for his portrait.

Eventually, however, the lady decided that I was most myself when I sat with my left foot slightly in front of the other, my left shoulder blade lightly touching the back of the chair, my left hand resting on my left knee, my right hand reposing negligently on my right knee, and looked at her. She then drew chalk marks around the feet of the chair and the feet of the sitter, and put a cigarette between the first and second fingers of my left hand to add artistic verisimilitude to my position of easy, unstudied grace.

At regular intervals, like the little figure of General Grant that used to advertise a cigar in tobacco-shop windows, I lifted my left hand, and smoked.

There is something about this situation, after you have got used to it and a lady has begun to paint your portrait, that seems to invite even a modest gentleman to chatter about himself, probably because he has nothing else to do and because this topic, owing to the primitive instinct I have just mentioned, is so fascinating to all of us. More than that, I suspect it may be the practice of portrait-painters to encourage and insidiously egg on this primitive instinct in sitters, as the best way of obtaining a constantly pleasant expression. It is altogether different from being told to ‘look pleasant, which merely reminds you that you do not look pleasant already. As you sit for your portrait your past life unrolls itself, not in the hurried panorama of remorse said to precede death by drowning, but selectively, happily, comfortably, always stepping the best foot foremost, so that I, for example, could tell the lady all about it. Incidents of my childhood came back to me, trifles of slight but picturesque interest, yet differentiating the bright little fellow from the childish herd, and somehow forecasting, even then, that he would some day write a Contributors’ Club paper for the Atlantic. Ah, Boswell! Boswell! — you should have been behind the arras when Mrs. Reynolds was painting that portrait of Dr. Johnson.

Meantime the lady who was painting me said little — an occasional suggestion that I had unwittingly moved my head, or an appreciative word or so to keep the autobiography going — but held busily to her task, tacitly excusing herself from conversation by holding one brush in her mouth while she worked with another. Now and then, to be sure, I stopped. I fell silent, methodically smoking my cigarette and accumulating more material for self-revelation.

’A little to the left, please.
I cannot see your ear.
A little to the left, please,
Will make it reappear.
Your ear is like the North Star
That guides the mari-neer;
And when I see it plainly
I know just how to steer.’

I don’t mean to suggest that the lady spoke in verse, but so, like a haunting refrain, her conversation comes back to me.

’T is an odd experience, when you think of it afterward: to sit gracefully on a throne, smoking a cigarette (which is an odd thing, too, for a grown man, made, as he likes to think, in the image of Divinity, to do), and chatting unreservedly about yourself, while a female, as Dr. Johnson would say, stares you indelicately in the face, and by deft mixing of pretty colors copies you — cigarette, chatter, and all — on a piece of canvas. A ' counterfeit presentment,’said Hamlet, with that customary nice choice of words that might have made him a prince of essayists if Uncle Claudius had curbed his own rougher ambition to be a King of Denmark.

And how long this counterfeit will outlast the original!

Little as he may want the thing round — or she either — it seems practically impossible for one human being intentionally to destroy the painted portrait of another; and the older it gets the more potent its aura of indestructibility. It becomes an antique. It may be adopted. It is not impossible that I am now sitting for an ancestral portrait, somebody’s great-great-grandfather who will not meet great-great-grandma till they are innocently hung together. I hope the combination will do me credit. This portrait of me, this chatty smoker on a throne, who can imagine its future vicissitudes? The lady no doubt will exhibit it, ‘Portrait of Mr. X―,’ as the tailor I have imagined w7ould exhibit my new spring suit, and yet not mine, ‘Spring Suit Made for Mr. X―,’ in proof of his craftsmanship. It may win a prize, and be purchased by a museum, and copied in the Sunday newspapers: —


Or, again, it may attract the attention of an art-loving tobacco-manufacturer, who will suspend it proudly in his palatial banqueting-hall, and distribute gigantic copies all over the landscape of America, Europe, and the Far East, innumerable portraits of me, two or three times as large as life, and obviously smoking the enthusiastic tobacco-manufacturer’s latest cigarette. Perhaps a ‘Samuel’; perhaps a ‘ Queen of Sheba, the Wise Man’s Favorite.’

Or, again, it may descend to the lady’s heirs, and their heirs; pass from hand to hand, disappear in garrets, become, in short, a vagabond wanderer and nameless, long-time dweller in dusty places sacred to the miscellany of now useless things — bustles, hoop skirts, pictures, tall hats, and so forth, and so forth — that mankind, with a sigh for those who once owned and loved them, mercifully hides away and tries to forget. And yet, who knows? Mellowed by the centuries, my once white shirt darkened beyond hope of any laundry and my cigarette still unfinished, this portrait of me may be found in its obscurity, and recognized as a masterpiece — the unknown ‘Man Smoking a Cigarette.’ Things as strange have happened in the history of art, and I too may yet have my Pater. I cannot see myself, nor, from my throne, the portrait of me now coming into its long, immobile life on the lady’s canvas; but she, like Leonardo, may be painting ‘a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.’ I am inclined to question the exquisite passions, but I am sure I have had strange thoughts and fantastic reveries. Everybody has.

So I sat on my throne, smoking my cigarette, meditating, and dictating my autobiography. After all, it is only in a portrait that one sees how one looks to somebody else. My own face, as I see it myself, is, if I may so put it, too round, too much like the full moon; but perhaps to others it appears more oblong, more, indeed, like an egg. It is an unimportant matter of personal taste, but I should prefer to look more like an egg. I would not, of course, have the resemblance too literal. So I was, I admit, curious to see what the lady had been doing, and how I looked to her. One should not expect too much at the end of the first sitting; nor, I realized, was it customary for painters to let their sitters see a portrait in those early stages. But she let me look.

It was a strange thing! I would hardly have called it the portrait of a man; and yet there was about it something terrifyingly human. It possessed features — nose, mouth, eyes, and eyebrows, casually distributed in a round, moonish, nebulous, greenish-and-yellowish face. The nose, as I now remember, was blue, or perhaps red, and there was a bright-green patch under the creature’s left eye, a lacklustre and indifferent organ. The right eye was livelier. It seemed to be looking out of this nightmare with a penetrating and even whimsical interest. Indeed, on closer consideration, it was this living eye that animated and explained the monster as something organic in process of evolution to a higher order. Perhaps the strangest and most repulsive thing about it was to see it smoking a cigarette. And in some horrible, round, uncanny, and suggestive way it resembled me.