Thursday, September 18, 2008

Portraits In General (Not "Portraits of a General"--that's a completely different topic)

Why was the Renaissance age fascinated with portraits? They show power. They show pride. They exhibit a hope to last forever, if not in the body, at least on a wall or canvas.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that "the essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people." Was it for snobbish reasons that King James wanted his portrait the size of a large room, with his horse's head shrunken like a voodoo doll?

Life, wrote William Hazlitt, is a struggle to be what we are not and to do what we cannot. If Hazlitt is to be believed, we are, as he goes on to say, very much what others think of us. Is that the reason for these portraits. To impress others? To impress the courtiers? To impress other nobles? To attempt to impress themselves?

Is it vanity, then, that guides the rich, the royal, and the "noble" of this age to wish for a portrait? In many respects, these portraits are an expression of vanity. Even more than pride, vanity wishes to show to all ones worth. Says Schopenheaur "pride is an established conviction of one's own paramount worth in some particular respect; while vanity is the desire of rousing such a conviction in others and it is generally accompanied by the secret hope of ultimately coming to the same conviction oneself."

A portrait lives on--men (and Virgin Queens) do not.

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