Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Adolphe-Marcellin DefresneGraphite on paper, 1825/ Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum. 

The portrait is meant to give us a direct line into the soul of its sitter, or at least we’re told. It’s meant to expose underlying truths about the subject, using physiognomy to express that which cannot be gleaned from the subject’s name alone.

And yet, why is it that whenever I view portraits that go anywhere beyond the shoulders, all I can focus on are the hands? An old art historian told me years ago that the true mark of an artist’s draughtsmanship is his ability to render hands, due to the difficulty in producing the form, especially the digits. Whether true or not, this bit of received wisdom has lodged itself firmly in my brain, nagging even the finest works. (I’m reminded of Gainsborough’s portraits, which for all their virtues can feature hands that are almost sickly.)

And so it is with the Morgan Library’s new portrait drawings show, “Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso,” on view through September 8, 2015. The show, composed of fifty-one works, all but four of which are from the permanent collection, takes a wide view of the concept of portraiture, which is to say, there’s no shortage of hands. The show is arranged into four distinct categories: “Self,” “Family and Friends,” “Formal,” and “Portraits?,” the most nebulous category, featuring works that may extend beyond the traditional bounds of portraiture. It’s a hallmark of the modern historical exhibition to attempt to look beyond the bounds of its topic, often as a “hook” for viewers who may find the traditional designations too narrow (or, heaven forbid, too traditional). Though the Morgan’s show does succumb to this trend, with the final “?” allowing for works that are questionably portraits, the show is no poorer for it, probably because portraits per se are always more than mere portraits. Some show hands and some don’t; some feature props and others are headshots. Ultimately, portraiture is a sufficiently broad category, with enough scope to render unnecessary the question mark.

Punctuation foibles aside, the show features a strong collection of works that reminds one of just how much there is to portraiture. Spanning roughly the late fifteenth century to the early twentieth, the works range from the preparatory to the finished, the group to the singular, the iconic to the unheralded. In short, the show reminds us that portraiture is not a closed genre, stilted by inexorable conventions. Portraiture is definitionally fluid, and the best pieces in the show make that eminently clear.

Particularly strong is the effect achieved through judicious hanging of pairs; though the walls each feature upwards of five portraits, it’s clear that some have been hung next to counterparts intended to bring out certain elements in both. Of the pairings, the most obvious is perhaps a set of two portraits by Ingres, depicting Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne and his wife Sophie individually. In Monsieur we see a gentleman at ease, jauntily leaning upon a standing desk with a pose reminiscent of the artist’s less-famous portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte as First Consul, which hangs in Liège. Completed just after the artist’s return to France, this pair displays Ingres’s virtuoso drawing skills, especially apparent in the folds of Monsieur’s waistcoat and the ruffles of Madame’s dress. There is none of his later perspectival distortion here, just simple, crisp lines befitting personal portraits. Oh, and the hands? His are better than hers, one resting atop the desk, quill at the ready. Hers disappear into her dress but it’s a credit to Ingres’s ability (and that of the exhibition) that we notice his and not hers.

Another prominent pair is that of Ducreux’s “Portrait of a Man (Toussaint Louverture?)” and Greuze’s “Portrait of Denis Diderot.” Here we needn’t concern ourselves with the question of hands, as neither portrait goes past the elbow. What’s left is a pairing of iconic images, one of the great Haitian emancipator and the other of the famed encyclopedist. Diderot has straightforward, weary eyes and a face entirely in profile, and the chalk drawing seems more a bust than a work on paper, fitting for a man of such stature. Ducreux’s drawing, also chalk, takes a different approach to its purportedly famous figure. The Ducreux sitter is vivacious, searching, altogether alive. It is not the funerary bust of Greuze’s Diderot, meant to celebrate a great man and the notion of the great man; rather, it is a searching and intimate portrait of an individual, giving no hint to the sitter’s notoriety. It should come as no surprise, then, that the portrait may not be of Louverture at all. Other theories suggest a servant in livery; the answer seems lost to history.

With so many pieces it would be difficult to cover all, but a few individual works are worth noting. Sargent has a wonderfully insouciant portrait of Paul-César Helleu, the French society painter known for his work on Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling. Leaning back, the artist is every bit the bon vivant, a murky watercolor shadow reclining with pleasure, elegant hand extended as if to suggest a forthcoming rumination. I’m reminded of Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art, where a character opines, “How well one knows the feeling of loving the whole world after downing a few doubles.” Helleu knows and Sargent does too, capturing the feeling with ease.

Standing opposed to the spirit of Sargent’s watercolor is a work by Bernini depicting Cardinal Scipione Borghese (nephew of Pope Paul V) in his ecclesiastical attire. Here the sitter appears in profile, distinctive goatee and hat rounding out the head. Like Greuze’s Diderot, the portrait drawing has all the hallmarks of a portrait bust. Little wonder, then, that the drawing is, in fact, a study for the later bronze busts that Bernini executed of the Cardinal. Those busts have more personality than the drawing itself, but the chance to see the artistic process in motion, especially cross-medium, is a treat for the viewer.

And what of the namesake portraits, the Picasso and the Dürer? Nothing much to note here—Picasso’s (of Marie Derval) is early and figurative while Dürer’s (of his brother) is typical Dürer, exceptionally well-drawn and vaguely luxurious. Which is not say that this show is anything but a great success; just that when attending exhibitions it is almost always worth exploring beyond the catchy title. 


View Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso through September 8, 2015 at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

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