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.