Emily Dickenson is one of my favorite poets, but when she writes, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” it’s frustrating to be able to follow only half of her advice. The problem is, there are a lot of truths; they are as innumerable as clouds in the skies. So it’s impossible to tell more than a little truth about even one of them, let alone to tell all the truth about each. On the other hand, telling a truth — but telling it slant — is a different matter.
Truth is especially knotty for portrait painters, because truth is not what most sitters pay for. Usually portraits are concerned with surfaces: is the dress. or the suit, fashionable? Does the painting convey the sitter’s social status? Equally important: is the portrait an accurate representation of the subject?
We can assume that this beautiful portrait of Lady Eleanora by Bronzino is accurate on all of these levels or he would not have been paid so handsomely to have painted it. Her dress, jewelry and her son are as important to the image as her face. The portrait reveals her likeness and her wealth. Her social status in the Medici court in Florence in 1545 is self-evident and needs no explanation.
But what if the subject is an elusive person by nature and his social status is not a concern? For example, of all my nine younger siblings, brother Dan is the most enigmatic. He’s smart, loving, adventurous, funny and generous, an ideal brother. He’s also deeply spiritual. But he’s not inclined to say much, so even when he was a child there was an aura of mystery about him, which has continued throughout his life. I wanted to paint his portrait and suggest his inner life. But how?
One summer morning, I happened to see him reflected in a puddle of water on an asphalt driveway. Also reflected were the sun, and a tree and a corner of the house we grew up in years ago. Except for his shoes and the garden hose, everything was indistinct.
This was the “slant” I wanted. But in order for his indistinct reflection to make sense, i had to paint the shoes and the hose as accurately as I could.
Even so, many people who look at the painting often assume that it’s upside down and turn their heads upside down in order to make sense of it.
I wish I could say this is a satisfactory portrait of Dan, but I don’t think so. It may hint at the complexity of his character, or perhaps more accurately, at my inability to render that complexity in any depth. In other words, it’s more slant than truth. And Dan continues to be as enigmatic, and as lovable, to me now as he was long ago when we were boys.
3 thoughts to “A Portrait, Slant”
Portrait of Daniel
An unconventional portrait of an unconventional person. How unconventional is underscored by the inclusion of Il Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanora di Toledo in this post for comparison. I especially enjoy your reflections on how difficult it can be to capture an enigma. You may remain puzzled, but the portrait seems to me to be as honest an attempt as your verbal ruminations are in rendering this mystery. Honest and successful from my point of view.
On a formal level the painting is wonderfully complex. The serpentine forms, for example, in the watering hose, of course, but also in the contours of the puddle; the rectilinear forms in the roofline; the circular forms in the sun, lamp fixture, and head of the subject; the organic versus inorganic. In sum, a wonderful painting, that is, a painting full of wonder.
Many thanks again for your insights, and written so gracefully. It’s really fun to read how you see, and I’m learning a lot about what I’m unconsciously painting from what you’re telling me.
I’m going to send this off to you right now, although I don’t know whether Lapo has rigged the “reply” so that it gets to you. Would you let me know, via email@example.com if you get this? Thanks. More news later.
I think you have something very beautiful and reflective going on in these blog posts, and I’m delighted to take part. (I actually have no social network activity at all, so I may not know what I am talking about in this context.) Still, I think you should have a reaction to your thoughtful posts, but I don’t react to give you something I think you deserve. Rather, I feel compelled to respond because the posts are provocative, and I always feel a connection that I’m pleased to express. If these comments are either useful or supportive, well, shit, I’m delighted.