Monday, January 25, 2010

Famous Authors Drawn Not Quartered

Martin Droeshout's 1623 Engraving Of William Shakespeare.

The purpose of any portrait is to capture the essence of the subject. To somehow convey in a single image not just the outward appearance of the sitter, but his soul. But if the subject is a great writer, does that task become impossible? Poet Ben Jonson thought so, and maybe the curators at Princeton University's Firestone Library do, too.

Those curators have just opened a new exhibit of 100
paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, marble sculptures, and plaster death masks, depicting literary giants. The title of the gallery show is: The Author's Portrait. But the subtitle, O, could he but have drawne his Wit, is loaded with irony. Those words are from a 1623 lament by poet Ben Jonson, published in the First Folio of the works of William Shakespeare. Jonson bemoans the fact that the engraver, Martin Droeshout, cannot possibly capture the genius of Shakespeare in a portrait. He ends with these lines: "Reader, looke, Not on his Picture but his Booke." But the Princeton curators do want viewers to look at the images of authors collected from their Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. So here's a sampling of the exhibit, and readers are invited to decide for themselves if the souls of the writers have been well depicted by the artists.

William Marshall's 1645 Engraving Of John Milton.

This portrait, produced for John Milton's first published book of verse, includes the writer's opinion of his likeness in the caption. Written in ancient Greek--which the artist could not understand--Milton invited the reader to "laugh at the artist's botched attempt" at portraiture.

Martin Droeshout's 1633 Line Engraving of John Donne.

Think this portrait of John Donne looks a bit funereal? The author--perhaps knowing the bell was about to toll for him--showed up wrapped in a burial shroud for the sitting. What's an artist to do but oblige the subject by creating a memento mori?

William Blake's 1803 Engraving Of Author William Cowper. Based On A Pastel Portrait By George Romney.

Today, the artist-poet who made the engraving is by far more well known than the subject. But at the time, William Blake was a hired gun, employed by his patron,William Hayley, to create a frontispiece for his book "The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper." A relative of Cowper's found the Blake's initial attempt at the portrait so poor she begged Hayley never to allow it to be shown in public. Apparently this version passed muster, but Hayley and Blake eventually had such a bitter falling out over paid commissions that Hayley wrote: "Blake appeared to me on the verge of insanity."

William Finden's 1839 Engraving Of Charles Dickens, Based On A Painting by Daniel Maclise, And Published In The Life and Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby.

Charles Dickens was a notoriously difficult portrait subject, and literally tore apart Finden's work time after time until he was satisfied. The author was later quoted as saying: "There are only two styles of portrait painting, the serious and the smirk." It is unknown into which category Dickens placed this particular image.

Rackell's 1938 Pastel Of George Bernard Shaw.

This last one is a real head scratcher. Not only do the Firestone Library's curators not know what playwright George Bernard Shaw thought of the caricature, as of August 2009 they hadn't identified the artist. On August 17, 2009 the following query was posted on the University's Graphic Arts Blog: "Coming up this winter is an exhibition of author portraits. Included will be this pastel caricature of the Irish playwright G. B. Shaw, created in 1938 by an artist using the pseudonym Rackell. Who is Rackell? This name does not turn up in any of the standard art history sources, or in Shaw biographies. Surely someone out there knows someone who can give us some information on this artist or the making of this drawing?" No comments were left on the blog entry, and since the checklist for this exhibit isn't available online, there's no way of knowing if the curators got an answer without shelling out $17.50 (including shipping and handling) for the printed catalog. If anybody reading this has the information, I'd be grateful if you'd post a comment here and save this curious Book Patrol writer a few bucks.

The Firestone Library's exhibit,The Author's Portrait: O, Could He But Have Drawne His Wit opened on January 22, 2010 and continues through July 5, 2010.

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