Friday, December 11, 2009

Portraits of Times Past

Yesterday I played hooky — took a subway ride to Prospect Heights, had a leisurely lunch with a friend at Tom's on Washington Avenue and then spent a couple of pleasant hours meandering around the Brooklyn Museum.

My original purpose was to see the "Who Shot Rock & Roll" exhibit — a collection of photos, slides and films of singers and bands from the 1950s through the recent past. It's a well-mounted show filled with vivid, iconic shots. Some artists are represented by one-offs and others — Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Hendrix, for example — are given their own sections. Although some of the work was magnificent, without music and movement, little of it felt like rock & roll to me. One exception: David LaChapelle's strange and hypnotic video of the Vines doing their song "Outtathaway."

The more interesting portraits, at least to me, were just down the hall in the gallery of paintings of North American aristocrats of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The men uniformly looked pampered and powerful. But the women...they were a different story. I found myself having silent conversations with them.

“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Some had unibrows and dark moustaches that cried out for tweezers and waxing. The portrait above is Mrs. John Haskins (née Hannah Upham), painted by Joseph Badger in 1759. As I looked at her my heart ached. I wanted to say, "Hannah, sweetie, let's fix that hair. It's all wrong for your narrow little face."

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.”
~ Miss Piggy

And look at Doña Maria de la Luz Padilla (Gomez de) Cervantes as she was painted by Miguel Cabrera in 1760. It's obvious she has great wealth; just take a gander at her massive pendant, her rings and bracelets and that bejeweled headdress. But it is also obvious she is entirely miserable. My guess: she cannot breathe in that horrible outfit, and she has been posing in it for who knows how many days. Look at her waist. Inside, Doña Maria is screaming, "Get me out of this wretched corset right now!" but she lacks the courage or pulmonary power to say it. And so she sips in teaspoonfuls of air and pouts.

But then, a few steps down the hall and 66 years later, I came upon the glorious Peale sisters, Eleanor and Rosalba, painted by their father Rembrandt Peale in 1826. Graceful, poised, softly coiffed and apparently less cruelly corseted, they seem serene. Way to go, Peale sisters. Daddy loves you.

"I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?"
~ Jean Kerr

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