Seeking to capture a likeness, be it prose or ‘selfie’, is a notoriously evasive task. The psychology of the subject, patron and artist all have to be considered. The elusive perfection of the human face has brought artists from Vermeer to Picasso to portraiture. There is something inherently enchanting about the genre, such that it is little wonder that the most famous painting in the world is indeed a portrait. Happily, you needn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with tourists in the Louvre to experience the curious pleasure a portrait can provide. Bostonians are lucky to have New England’s rich history of art collection to thank for its containing some of the finest and least known works of the genre.
It seems fitting to start with a critical figure of Boston’s history. After attending Harvard, William Morris Hunt spent much of the mid-nineteenth century studying art in Italy, France and Germany, eventually forming a close friendship with the Barbizon School painter Jean-François Millet. The oil painting of Olivia Buckminster Lothrop (mid 1860s) is a perfect example of the blossoming culture of New England society, with portraits serving as status symbols and badges of taste. Hunt was responsible for a fashion amongst the Boston elite for French sophistication, which he used to promote his friend Millet as much as himself. The fine fabric of her dress and lace are charismatically painted, with a scrupulous attention to detail that permits no denial of Hunt’s work with the French realist Thomas Couture.
Painted in 1543, the portrait of Sir William Butts, M.D. is a treat for monarchical history enthusiasts and medical historians alike. It’s also exciting if you like dramatic noses. Hans Holbein the Younger was a German painter who won over King Henry VIII, so much so that he became the portraitist to the court. Here Holbein shows us another important personage of the monarchical staff, Sir William Butts, a royal physician. If you wander into the Dutch room of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, you will see him accompanied by his wife, Margaret Bacon. So much about this work is distinctly Tudor, the characteristic cap, the prominence of the golden chain and the sober dress of an attendant to the King. This was not the only work that Holbein painted of Butts, he also appears in the large work ‘King Henry VIII Grants the Charter to the Barber-Surgeons’.
‘Self-Portrait, Aged 23’ painted in 1629 by Rembrandt is an oil painting exhibiting both the lifelong stylistic qualities that make Rembrandt’s work so remarkable, and the potential of the young man early in his career to hone those qualities. This work is a real treat for those amongst us with a taste for history, as it serves as a real encapsulation of the painter’s life at that moment. Unlike his other self-portraits, his face is not saturated in expression and drama. Unusually, the work is more about costume than it is about character, with the characteristic yellow light falling on a plumed hat and fine clothes. He is even wearing a golden chain that denotes the noble profession of painting. The clue as to why this might be lies in the pristine finishing of the painting. The meticulous of the finishing combined with the air of vague respectability serves as an advertisement for the aspiring artist. It is a rare opportunity to see one of the most important and famous artists in the western tradition as a fledgling genius, as wonderfully illuminating to his history as his chiaroscuro is to his subjects.
Both the portrait of Rembrandt and Butts may be found in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, while the painting of Lothrop is in the MFA. You may notice that all of these artists are men, and as a disclaimer it is prudent to add that these works were produced in an age where women were seldom permitted creative rights. Such a delve into the past was chosen due to provide variety from my other rather more modern articles, which feature an equality of artistic genius.