Monday, March 09, 2009

Shakespeare's Portrait

Have you seen this portrait? It's just been unveiled as possibly the only portrait of the Bard to have been painted during his lifetime.

It's not terribly different than other portraits I've seen, but there is a crispness to the details. This interests me not just because it's Shakespeare, but because I've come across the problem of attaching too much emphasis to particular images of historical figures that may not be true likenesses at all.

Hannibal, for example. I've always found it rather amazing that each book on Hannibal has images of him included, a coin, a sculpture, plenty of paintings. They all present them as if they are valid images, and people walk away thinking they are. But none of them are! Most of them were made hundreds (or thousands) of years after his death, by people that never saw him.

When I've pointed this out I've often have felt some reluctance to it. Like I'm making something vague that shouldn't be. It's like many would rather say, "I saw that bust of Hannibal, that's how I think of him. Don't know what your motives are for muddying the waters..."

I know what my motives are: being clear on the very limited certifiable facts of distant history, and being aware that imagery can redefine meaning in ways that aren't accurate - often intentionally so.

Anyway, I'm off post topic, but that's what I was reminded of when I saw this story. Here's a cat that was famous in his time, surrounded by artists in a culture in which portrait painting was big, studied by millions over the years. And only now might we be seeing the single portrait painted by someone that actually knew him in life? I don't see that the article below names the artist. Maybe they'll figure that out in another hundred years or so...

New York Times Article.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems there could be a whole lotta things to say about the way we see famous people from the past. I'm not saying "historical people" because even for Shakespeare some say he never really existed.

But Shakespeare left some proof of himself during his lifetime.

Which can not be said of... Jesus Christ, for exemple. One can believe in him and in the fact that he really existed, but nobody can prove he really existed. Because there is no real proof of everything that is said about him. Apart from a ton of wood supposed to be part of the Holy Cross and adored all around the world in small pieces in each place.

But of course, the fact that there is no proof of his real life does not mean that he didn't really existed.

So about the Christ you can say : "He's history" ?

Everybody, it seems.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Child of Albion said...

I was recently at a talk discussing the image of Seneca (Nero's) as it has been received in post-Roman periods. What is striking, of course, is that the face (really, faces) of Seneca, so vividly composed by Medieval and Early Modern painters, is entirely fabricated. An artist saw an old fisherman, and to the artist, the old fellow had "the countenance of Seneca", and so that face became a sort of standard. Now you'll see it staring at you from book covers. A fisherman in Naples has lent his face to a Roman philosopher. History is a wonderfully murky business.

Your Hannibal comment inspired the above.

11:45 PM  

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