Glasses in Portraiture
I have a faible for glasses in portraits.
Perhaps because they somehow are the intellectual’s attribute, but certainly because I like portraiture in general. Portraits are often centred around the eyes and the exchange of gazes between the viewer and the portrayed. When the portrayed wears glasses this is highlighted even more.
I have shown you this self-portrait by Francisco de Goya before, but I think it’s magnificent:
Goya. Self-portrait. c. 1797-1800. Musée Goya, Castres.
Goya is playing with sight, with his eyes fixed on the viewer, or in fact his own reflection in the mirror while painting. One eye looks through the spectacles and the other looks over the rim. The glasses probably refer to an artist type – the well-read artist. Glasses are connected with reading and Goya definitely identified himself as an intellectual while at the same time having been trained outside the academy. He balanced throughout his life between his craftsmanship and his intellectual aspirations. One eye uses the glasses, the other doesn’t.
At the same time the glasses might be a very concrete reference to his work as an etcher. Etching requires minute work and a pair of glasses might very well come in handy. Goya was in this period working on some of his most famous etchings.
Victor Stoichita and Anna Maria Coderch have in their interesting book Goya. The Last Carnival written about this self-portrait and its possible meanings:
“In the case of the self-portraits (…), Goya’s fondness for bifocality, affirmed by the adoption of the double gaze, appeared to be a perpetual swinging or perfect simultaneity between observation and introspection, vision and snapshot, realism and distortion.”
I like this idea of simultaneous observation and introspection. The artist is at the same time contemplating his soul and the world.
Another example of glasses is this portrait of Henri Matisse by my current friend André Derain:
André Derain. Portrait of Henri Matisse, 1905. Tate, London.
Matisse too has his glasses a bit aslant and it is tempting to discuss the same issues as in Goya’s self-portrait. I don’t think it would be too far fetched at least to note the oblique angle and say that some meaning is in that. Not the exact same since Matisse is not an Enlightenment artist looking to be an intellectual. But bifocality – certainly. I would say it has to do with a capacity to look far and near thus encapsulating all details in the viewed. An important capacity both in an artist and in a person in general.
You don’t observe the glasses at first sight, but when you see them they enforce a feeling of sympathetic, almost paternal observation on Matisse’s part. If you are strolling the ‘father-figure-hero’ path then I can add that Matisse, somewhat older than the very young Derain, had taken him under his wing, brought him to Southern France where they spent a summer working blissfully side by side.
Moving on from such psychoanalytic crumbles one would note that the art they were making that summer was in some ways focused on sight and how you experience colour. The somewhat fragmented fauvism could perhaps also be seen as a play of lenses and kaleidoscopic crystallisations.
These were two examples of focalisation on the gaze. Here is an even more extreme example:
Francis Bacon. Portrait of Man with Glasses, III. 1963. Private Collection
I am no expert on Francis Bacon though deeply fascinated. All I can say is that it is impossible to establish any relation via sight or gaze in this portrait. The figure doesn’t seem to be looking at the viewer, but who knows, and he is definitely refusing to be looked at in return. I think the sunglasses add a creepy tone that commands the whole painting which is enhanced when you look at the title. It says nothing about sunglasses (that was my initial reading of the surface), it only mentions glasses. This gives the black hollows an even more ghostly look – they make the head seem more like a scull than the head of a living man. The scullness of the portrait is strengthened also by the teeth. But the glasses are the most active agent in my eyes. Very elegantly done.
I will continue looking for glasses in art and if you know of any please give me a hint!
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