A good photograph can go a long way in conveying the truth of a person. His or her appearance, mood and unique presence. Photography can capture the essence of the subject.
An accomplished portrait painter can equally capture a sense of honesty. A moment in time can be frozen in paint. Even better, in the hands of the truly gifted, a painting can reveal future outcomes. Such was the case with John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit."
Sargent's painting captures the four daughters of the wealthy, expatriate American couple Edward Darley and Mary Louisa Cushing Boit. The painting was unconventionally arranged upon a square canvas, with unequal importance given to the various girls in the picture.
John Singer Sargent portrayed the four daughters with the youngest in the foreground clutching her doll. The doll seems to signify innocence and youth. But then, as we view the rest in the painting, we see the remaining three sisters receding into the background. Into the shadows and darkness.
Strangely, none of the four girls in the painting ever married, despite their family's wealth and privilege. Did Sargent somehow intuit the unfortunate trajectory of their future? Did he sense that something was amiss, which informed his unconventional painting design?
Artists are often seen by others as somewhat different. Attuned to a heightened frequency and perception of the world around them. It's one of the things I love about creative, artistic people.
Yesterday I was listening to the NPR radio show "Fresh Air" with host Terry Gross. She was interviewing the actor Tom Hanks. At one point, Terry asked Tom about his Twitter posts. Apparently, Tom likes to post pictures of things like lost gloves and mittens.
Terry Gross asked Tom Hanks why he posts such unusual photos. Hanks explained that there was something inherently sad about a single, lost mitten on the sidewalk. Further, he described how sometimes the wind lifts these lost and forgotten items. Which makes them look like they're "walking" down the street. As if they are looking for their separated companion. Hanks felt like each lost item contained a unique story.
Tom Hanks' eye for lost articles of clothing and abandoned mittens illustrates perfectly the "eye" of an artist. Creative, artful people are able to see the world in unique and different ways. And then they often portray these insights and visions via their photographs, movies, paintings, writings and more. Just like John Singer Sargent knew to portray the Boit sisters in a foreboding sort of way.
The best of portrait artists are able to ferret out the deeper truth of their subjects. Beyond likeness, they sense and uncover the interiority of their subjects. They reveal the essence of the sitter. Which can be joyful or sad.
Check out this moving and brilliant painting of Robin Williams by painter Tony Pro.
Portraiture in the hands of a sensitive and accomplished artist can reveal things that elude photography. Emotional pain, longing, hope, loss and more can be revealed on the canvas. If the artist has both the technical facility and emotional sensitivity to see the sitter's nuanced clues.
John Singer Sargent was celebrated as one of the great portraitists and painters of his time. Beyond portraits, landscapes and still life, he could even find the translucent beauty in a squid!
There is joy and sorrow to be found in the faces of others. Even in the landscape, as Tom Hanks discovered with forgotten mittens and gloves.
As artists and creative people, our job is to plumb these creative depths and uncover the beauty, sorrow, joy and truth. Because when we succeed, we freeze in time a bit of our humanity and shared existence.
Such artistic contributions help others to see and sometimes bring us all a bit closer. And in a world of pain, war, sorrow and uncertainty, anything that brings us closer is a welcome thing indeed.