"For Luca"

When Luca del Baldo explained to me the scope of his “visionary academy of ocular mentality,”
my first thought was to go search through old files for a suitably academic photograph – of
which I came across many: taken at a conference in Madrid, or in the courtyard of the Sackler
Museum, or on the steps of some library or other. Yet when I saw more of Luca’s work in
portraiture, I realized that they were all too formulaic, simply too thin for the artist to work on
or depart from. They were photographs of the kind that accumulate by themselves over a
career, products of happenstance, of occasions when my presence was no more than
incidental. I took no personal interest in any of them. In fact, among a lifetime of photographs
taken of me, there is only one in which I can truly see myself.
An acanthus pattern tattoo of my upper left arm had just been completed, and this may have
been the prompt for the photograph. It was taken in 2010 by my life partner David McDowell,
under the spotlight in the dark hallway outside the playroom of our house in California. What
astonished me about the photograph is that I appeared, for once, as a “sensuous and intelligent
being” (Schiller) – and not just a bookworm. Somehow the photographic apparatus had been
absorbed or internalized and the camera could see through the eyes of Dave, through the eyes
of love. This singular image had a counterpart – a picture I once took secretly of Dave,
sunbathing on a recliner and falling asleep, his beard glistening in the July sunshine, looking
gorgeous. You know how it is when you look at the one you love as they sleep: it can take your
breath away. Many years have passed since then. We have both changed and aged. Yet when
I think of Dave, it is still that image that persists and rings true, in spite of time.
When I accepted Luca’s generous invitation I had not yet seen any of his paintings, but now I
began to seek them out. As a portraitist, what were his aims? How did he manage pigment
and brushes? What feelings did his work tend to summon in his viewers? I began with his
portrait of Madonna, made relatively late in her career, at the time of her 12th studio album
(MDNA) in 2012. By this date Madonna had passed through a great many transformations –
virgin bride, material girl, dominatrix, yogini, dancing queen. The publicity shot for MDNA, from
which Luca must have worked, revealed a Madonna softer than before, less kinetic, her hair
arranged in crimped blond waves like a 30s movie star, her face impassive and her complexion
radiant, flawless, smooth as ivory.
Luca’s reworking of the photographic image systematically dismantled the work of idealization
that publicity shots and fashion photographs are designed to accomplish. Stripping away the
superficial mask of beauty, his portrait revealed very different conditions of the face that lay
beneath. Where in the photograph flesh and makeup fused, now they separated. Eyelashes
that had formed a luxuriant and dreamy blur now stood out from her face, hair by hair, as if
glued in place. Lipstick that in the photograph so completely blended with skin-tone as to seem
almost natural, became a swathe of paint laid over a mouth that in its lines of muscular tension
revealed unsuspected depths – of vulnerability, disappointment, resilience. From beneath the
mask of beauty there emerged a face marked by time and experience, with the scars and the
toughness of a survivor. If the photograph were the only evidence, one would have no idea of
who Madonna was or what her career had achieved; no understanding of the way her
performances took hold of the codes of femininity and utterly changed them, by sheer force of
personality forging a new kind of uber-empowered, hypersexualized female star that became
the dominant model of femininity for the next generation of performers. Yet that was exactly
the understanding that emerged from Luca’s portrait, which, looking past the pretext of the
publicity shot, recognized the toughness, the iron will and feral energy that lay behind all
Madonna’s performances.
Luca’s project comes at a critical moment in the history of the portrait, when the combined
forces of democracy and global communication have taken what originated as a genre for the
privileged few, and caused it to explode worldwide into an internet glittering with a billion
human countenances. To navigate the multitude, facial recognition software simplified the
complexity of the face to a basic cluster of salient points, and human users learned to do much
the same, passing over the array of faces at increasing speeds and with growing indifference.
One can think of Luca’s transposition of the photo-portrait into the medium of oils as a work of
sustained opposition to the degradation and trivialization of the contemporary portrait image,
its drift into entropy. In place of “instantaneous automatic reactions,” writes Barbara Stafford,
Luca mobilizes “the power of slow looking, the thoughtful judgment that comes from
deliberation, from the gradual unveiling of the phenomenological fragments that constitute
‘you’.” Breaking free from the photographic instant, the work of the brush opens a space for
critical reflection within which the painter, like any classical portraitist, is able to assess not
simply the sitter’s visual appearance but their whole character. I am reminded of Goya’s
portrait of the Spanish court, and the multiple aspects each one embodies, as if the artist were
to say: ‘Ridiculous! A complete buffoon! With what arrogance he attempts to hide his own
stupidity! Yet also see how damaged he is, and how lonely, how much he would welcome some
human warmth, of which I can spare a little.’
Consider his remarkable portrait of art critic Robert Hughes, made a year before his death in
2012. Hughes was regarded by many in the world of journalism (in university circles, not so
much) as the greatest art critic of our time. He had been the first to give an account of modern
art in terms the general public could understand and enjoy, and he did so without
condescension, relying on his own love for the art of the 20th century to convey his thought to
the audience. He had an exceptional ability to compress complex intuition into nuggets that his
readers could take away with them. Of the work of painter R.B. Kitaj he observed that it had
“the sense of not knowing the whole story that comes from being close up to traumatic
events.” He was fond of working his ideas into thunderous, Churchill-like pronouncements. Of
the post-Soviet artist duo, Komar and Melamid, he said that “it is the nature of carnivores to
get power and then, having disposed of their enemies, to deploy the emollient power of Great
Art to make themselves look like herbivores.” Following the success of The Shock of the New
(1981) he came to feel he was living at a time when the original energies of modernism had
become exhausted: “So much of art – not all of it, than God -- but a lot of it has become just a
cruddy game for the aggrandizement of the rich and ignorant.” In later years the contempt he
felt toward the art world resembled the scorn that Alexander Pope meted out on literary
London in the Dunciad. He never doubted he was right.
The delicious irony of Luca’s portrait is the way it turns the tables: not the critic judging the
artist, but the other way around. Any assessment of a figure as complex as Hughes is likely to
involve multiple aspects and takes, and judging from its densely layered surface, the portrait
cost Luca many hours of thought and deliberation. It is as though Hughes’ mettle were being
tested – in the way automobiles are tested, severely and relentlessly, by vibration platforms,
wind tunnels, simulated temblors. The accumulation of brushwork is such that Hughes’ face
looks as if it had been sandblasted, with everything of the surface blown away until only the
core remains. All the moisture seems to have been drained from Hughes’ lined and craggy
features, to the point where it resembles clay baked in a kiln, with a texture so rough that if a
piece of chiffon were to slide across, it would surely tear. The result is an image of Hughes that
has endures and survived every test, in the process acquiring a presence far greater than the
photograph suggests: the indomitable Robert Hughes.
What of Luca’s portrait of me? I had not expected any of the sentiment and intimacy present in
the original to survive the journey of transcription. The original had involved just Dave and me.
It had been cast in the vocative or second-person register of address, along the I-you axis of
communication. Luca’s piece was necessarily composed in the third-person or objective
register, in which ‘I’ is reified into ‘him’. When I first saw Luca’s portrait, I almost cried over the
dots of colored pigment that destroyed the even, celluloid surface of the original, with its sheen
and its hoped-for hint of glamor. But I soon came to love what replaced it.
I considered the thought (with apologies to Aristotle) that “Painting aims at representing men
as worse, Photography as better than in actual life.” Yet that did not quite fit the case here.
Closer to what I felt was the thought that photography, being virtual, always takes us away
from the material density of the real into a realm of simulations: but it provides no way
through which the image may return to the world. Luca’s generous intervention offered a
portal back into the real, which is where, after all, each of us has to live.

(Copyright  by Norman Bryson, 2019. All rights reserved)


The most complex and most adequate theory of portraits was formulated by Nicolas
Cusanus in the 15th century, contemporarily to the portraits of Jan van Eyck. In De Visione
Dei, Cusanus presented a theory of chiastic relationships between the person portrayed
and his or her portrait by arguing that not only the subject of the painting is able to look at
the artwork, but that this itself is looking at the beholder. In Idiota de Mente, he developed
his theory further into a most astonishing concept of similarity. Portraits, he argues, that
perfectly resemble the person portrayed are empty and bloodless, whereas those which
establish a certain distance between these two poles not only represent the portrayed but
also the vector of tension and power that is acting between them. These are the genuine
portraits: not similar, but true.
Unconsciously or through deeper knowledge, Luca del Baldo confirmed the second
element of Cusanus’ theory of portraiture. He did not confront sitters in order to perform
his insightful paintings, but used photographs of them. Turning the photographs into
paintings, he instantiates a distance between the indexical character of the photographic
representation and the constructive touch of the brush. It is astounding that through his
capacity of empathy, which comes not only from his knowledge of photography but also
from the lives and works of those he depicted, he was able to present the portrayed in a
much more indexical way than photography itself could ever have achieved. In his series,
he conducts the miracle of art: to go beyond the realm of representation and thus trace the
very character of what is shown. Of course, also photographs hold this capacity. But his
paintings after photographs install the vector of difference that for Cusanus is the condition
of true representation. I do know a number of the portrayed researchers personally, and I
was impressed by the similarity of my internal pictures of these persons and their outer
appearance as being evoked through Del Bado’s paintings.
His series of portraits stands in the tradition of Illustrium Imagines as founded by Andrea
Fulvio in 1517, or by Paolo Giovio with his similar approach in 1549. These illustrated
books were meant to install not only emperors but also humanists in the Hall of Fame. In
this tradition, Luca del Baldo establishes a special circle of Uomini Illustri: researchers who
deal with the problem of images in our times. Thus, he reflects upon the necessity to
reflect the powers and possibilities of pictures in a world in which visualization has become
a conditio sine qua non in all fields of life: economy, war, culture, entertainment and
research. His circle of the Uomini Illustri of pictorial research is a reflection of the capacity
of the object as such. I feel very honored to be included in this endeavor, together with

friends and colleagues whom in parts I have known for a very long time.

(Copyright by Horst Bredekamp, 2015. All rights reserved)


"Portrait or Self-Portrait?"

My first impression when I unwrapped Luca Del Baldo’s wonderful oil portrait of me was completely divided: the face was mine, but the expression felt unfamiliar.  

Every detail of the portrait seemed to me accurate. The Italian painter’s fine, careful touch had captured every blemish, every wrinkle and fold of aging skin, every stray wisp of thinning, graying, mussed-up hair. Even the two little dark spots on the left side of my forehead had been faithfully reproduced. Everything that too many years of sunshine had imprinted on my fair Irish complexion had been snared by the keen eye and hand of the painter.  

But what was strange or uncanny about the expression? It was an entirely faithful rendering of the photograph that I had sent to Luca Del Baldo. And that photograph was in a certain technical sense a self-portrait, or what the contemporary jargon refers to as a “Selfie.” That is, I had composed it carefully on the screen of my aptly named “iPhone.” When I was satisfied with my expression, I saved the picture and sent it off to Luca. My double take at the painting then, was registering a dissonance at the level of authorship. Was it a portrait? Or a self-portrait? Clearly it is both. The painting is a portrait, but the image reproduced from the photograph is a self-portrait. And that is precisely what is disturbing about it, for I read the expression (now rendered in gorgeous oils) as one of composure, complacency, confidence, and (in my darkest moments) a kind of smugness. It is, in other words, an expression of someone who has conquered his own doubts, and achieved a kind of triumphal assurance about life.  

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that I am constantly beset by doubts, second thoughts, secret questions and private fears. Luca could not possibly know any of this. He based his generous offer to paint my portrait on my reputation as a writer and scholar. We have never met face to face. In a way, his picture is of a writer’s mask, a persona constructed carefully by the agonizing work of arranging words on a page until they seem to capture a truth, convey an insight, or tell a compelling story. It is thus uncannily appropriate that it is a painting based on a Selfie, of a composed self-image. It is not “painted from the life,” but from a carefully constructed façade.  

George Bernard Shaw says somewhere that “every man over forty is responsible for his own face.” But does this apply to portraits? Or to self-portraits? Luca del Baldo’s beautiful painting is both. I will treasure it in some not very public place, where it will be my secret answer to the portrait of Dorian Gray. As I age into decrepitude, I will gaze at it to remind myself of how the magic of oil paint on canvas can sparkle with vitality, and how, for just a moment, I managed to project a calm air of clairvoyance. Or perhaps the more precise word would be acceptance, a resignation to the tragic death at age 38 of my son, Gabriel Mitchell, which occurred around the time this painting was commissioned. This seems to me visible in the eyes, which I recognize as my own. What does this picture want? Nothing, really. It has everything it needs, for as long as it lives.

W. J. T. MITCHELL, 2014
(Copyrights by W. J. T. Mitchell. All rights reserved)


"Dear Luca  Del  Baldo,

my resistance to comment on my portrait is explained by the fact that I am presently writing a book on face and mask. In my view , the difference between face and mask should be reconsidered. The face is to some extent also a mask, a mask of the self. Nietzsche, in his essays on “Jenseits von Gut und Böse”, even claimed that we need a mask to remain or to become ourselves. In your case, you have produced without knowing me in person, a portrait after a photograph and turned it into a painting which I only know from the digital reproduction. What then is it what I see? My expression is or seems spontaneous , and I have forgotten when and in which context the photograph was taken which you used.  I smile in your portrait but why and to whom? Maybe, I have changed since, as we always only remain ourselves on the condition that we change.  In my manuscript for the book I even suspect that we  only represent the self , since we aim at and exercise , or avoid ,such a representation. Thus, my hesitation to write about what I see ( and what it is what I see or don’t see) , may be the only reaction which is more than a play with empty words and  questionable ideas. In the meanwhile,  I continue to write a chapter on the portrait in my “history of the face” and I claim that what in other cultures was the mask, in the European tradition has become the portrait as a place holder , but a placeholder for what and for whom?

I now have to come to terms with my double and to overcome my hesitations. First, I am older now than the portrait is. 

Second, the portrait is smiling in such a way as I would not smile when portrayed in oil. But I will get used to this unexpected guest who questions my own presence.

So, you see, I am in the middle of a multitude of questions.

Tante grazie e tanti saluti

Hans Belting"

 (Copyright by Hans Belting, 2011. All rights reserved)


"For Luca"

As Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes have taught us, photographs are subliminally invested in the
passing of time. The snapshot marks a moment in space, but upon reflection, it opens up its own
temporal dimensions, though perhaps not to just any gaze at any time. This temporal dimension
becomes even more pronounced in the case of painting based on photography. Especially when the
paintings are portraits of aging academics.
Photopainting, a kind of remediation in reverse, brings to mind the early paintings of Gerhard Richter,
which powerfully conjure up a past, half remembered and half forgotten in Richter’s painterly blurring of
figures represented. Luca’s painterly style, with its expressively layered brushstrokes, is very different,
but his painting too opens up a temporal dimension. For me, his painterly transformation of the
snapshot I sent him results in a memory image that now affects the way I see the original photograph.
I have used this snapshot rather thoughtlessly several times in recent years on flyers and posters for
lectures. So it has traveled, has appeared in multiple poster designs in the U.S. and abroad, all of them
long since forgotten. It still has staying power on Google, among the bizarre algorithmically concocted
and chaotic mix of portrait and group photos taken at public events, book and journal covers, and other
only tangentially related images that one has no idea how or why they ended up together.
It is now Luca’s painting, which I witnessed developing in stages via email, that brings back memories of
the time and place where it was taken, during a lively discussion at a conference on memory politics in
Girona years ago. I spoke about the uses and abuses of forgetting, a topic that has gone academically

viral across the world in recent decades and had special resonance in post-Franco Spain. Looking self-
consciously at my likeness in the electronically transmitted photograph of the painting now, other

related memories emerge: memories of strolls through the old Jewish quarter of Girona and of the days
after the conference when my wife Nina Bernstein and I went to near-by Portbou where Walter

Benjamin committed suicide when he was denied transit in his attempt to flee the Nazis. He was buried
in an unmarked grave. Photography and death, it is a constellation that has accompanied this visual
technology in practice andin theory since its beginnings when stills from the Paris morgue were a
favorite subject.
In Portbou we admired Dani Karavan’s Passages, his stunning memorial to Benjamin: the tunneled dark
passageway down through the rocky shore toward the sea, which shimmered brightly in sunlight below,
promising escape just as a thick pane of glass blocked the end of the downward stairs. The feeling of
being trapped just as escape seemed possible was overwhelming. It triggered a mimetic desire to find
the hotel in Portbou where Benjamin spent the last night of his life, and to trace Benjamin’s flight across
the border from France into Spain. Taking advantage of today’s absence of internal European borders,
we drove the short distance across the high foothills of the Pyrenees into France, past a now abandoned
customs house. We parked the car near the top of the mountain, looking down from up high onto the
train station of Cerbère on the French side of the border. We continued on foot up the stony barren hill
direction Portbou until we could see the town and its cemetery on the bay, lying peacefully below us. As
mimesis of Benjamin’s and his group of refugees ascent and crossing, it was certainly inadequate. Yet it
did conjure up a time of closed borders and deadly entrapments, which resonate powerfully today: not
flight from fascist Europe, but migration into a Europe of closing external borders. Think of the powerful
entanglement of these two dimensions in Christian Petzold’s recent film Transit, based on the novel by
Anna Seghers, a compatriot of Benjamin’s who did make it out of Vichy France and to exile in Mexico at
the last minute.
Looking at Luca’s painting brought these memories back to the surface in light of current events, and I’m
grateful for having been pushed to put them into words. While never a complete reproduction of a past,
memory offers a rich palimpsest that helps us live and experience extended frameworks of time and

space. We have barely begun to understand how digital communications are challenging and
transforming this inherent human ability. Luca’s portraits anchor the photographed self at a time when
the accumulation of selfies and snapshots shared on Facebook or Instagram morphs into a collection of
arbitrary moments as continual present. But then the paintings will again take photographic form,
published in a book together with brief texts authored by the photos’ subjects: a unique project, which
confirms Benjamin’s controversial notion that any photograph needs a caption to be made legible. Now
I’m eager to see the painting itself. Or does that contradict the whole idea of an ‘original’ photograph
transformated into a painting that has an afterlife as photograph?
(Copyrights by Andreas Huyssen. 2019. All rights reserved)


"How do you recognize a world-famous scholar?"

The virtual academy that Luca del Baldo is composing is based upon the
essential principle of the portrait: the absence of the model. The effigy is
always representative. In the strict sense of the term: the image occupies
the place of the one who is not there. Already Leon Battista Alberti knew
about this specific characteristic, when he encouraged his
contemporaries to mold the faces, the heads of one’s friends in clay, in
order to be surrounded by them even though they might be distant. And
so, in the splendid isolation of his atelier on lake Como, the painter is
encircled by an increasing series of personalities that are important to
him: authors, philosophers, historians of art. People that work and write
on the power and force of the image, that represent the ocular thought.
I do not know, if anyone of them has ever personally visited the atelier.
Usually the painter solicits photographs and chooses the one that in his
eyes comes closest to what he has learned and deduced from the
persons writings. He then transforms the chemical trace of the
photographic surface in a pictorial gesture, in a stylistic cipher, proper
only to him – a virtuosic translation, interpretative, becoming steadily
more independent.
But the photos on which del Baldo relies are, commonly, taken by others.
I do not think that anyone has sent a selfie – only the most audacious
would have done so. This means, that the authors are already two. Like
me, also most of the others will have asked a confidant to take the
picture. A person of trust, of whom you can be sure that you will be
looked at with affection, sympathy, even tenderness. But the camera
works according to its own technical rules, which means that another
“author” comes into play. And since one postures, attitudinizes, tries to
appear in the most appealing (or: authoritative) manner in front of the
lens, also the model claims its part of the ”invention”. The paternities of
the portrait are hence multiple. Although the brush of the artist, his
choice of the detail, the colors, the light, his hand determine its final
apparition more than anything else.
So what do we see? Whom do we see? We are always inclined to read
in faces. The pseudo-science of the physiognomy, from Giambattista
della Porta (De humana physiognomonia, 1586) to Johann Caspar
Lavater (Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der
Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, 4 vol., 1775–78) has
encouraged generations to deduce from the individual traits and features
the character of the person, his virtues and his defects. But the German
naturalist, mathematician and virtuoso of aphorism, Georg Christoph
Lichtenberg (1742-1799), has reminded us early that “We judge hourly
from the face and we err hourly” (Wir urteilen stündlich aus dem Gesicht
und irren stündlich.) It was the premonition to be at fault, to abuse, to
derive risky speculations from the facial features. The physiognomy in
fact represents the dark side of the Enlightenment – the “hygiene of the
race” has exploited it merciless.
It seemed pertinent to me to recall this chapter also in front of Luca del
Baldo’s illustrious gallery. Not only numerous instances are involved in
the genesis of these portraits – what makes them the result of just as
many personal (or technical) interpretations. The “essence” of the model
is covered by multiple stratifications. Every portrait is the sum of varied
perspectives, fixed in an ultimate gesture by the artist. And every canvas
is the result of different dialogues that made it originate. The last and
certainly most decisive being that with the painter himself. Aligned in the
artist’s studio, a new colloquium develops among the pictures. But it is
an artistic conversation. A debate on the capacities, but also on the limits
of portraiture, and one on the artist’s sovereignty.
Because we should not cherish an illusion. We should remain skeptical
also in front of ourselves. There is an anecdote that is precious to me,
and not only because I am a resident of Basle. When the Swiss cultural
historian Jacob Burckhardt – then already well-established as the author
of the Cicerone and The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, what
generated an increasing requirement of diffusible images of him – was
encouraged by his family to have his picture taken, he put on his Sunday
suit and resorted to the local photographer in Basle. After knocking at the
studio’s door, he asked the Photographer to be portrayed. That declined
the wish, explaining: “Today that’s impossible, unfortunately. We await a
world-famous scholar.”
 (Copyrights by Andreas BEYER. 2018. All rights reserved)



In consequence of luck and longevity, I have had three overlapping careers. The first career, that of an artist, was facilitated by the circumstance of serving as a soldier for nearly four years in World War II. The experience helped straighten out the muddle of my youth, but practically, I benefited from the GI Bill of Rights, under which I had four years of free tuition in whatever university that would have me. In Detroit, where I grew up, culture was embodied in two white marble buildings, the main library of Detroit, and, across Woodward Avenue, the Detroit Museum of Art. Wayne University was a constellation of buildings behind the library. But for as long as I can remember, I wandered the galleries of the various collections, and decided early on that I would be an artist, so really, the DIA, as it now is called, gave me my education. The art program at Wayne in those years was fairly bland, but the remarkable collection of German Expressionist art, and particularly the prints made by Schmitt-Rothloff, Kokoshka, Pechstein, Nolde and the others, were my texts. I began to carve the end-pieces of fruit boxes, and taught myself print-making. I did some painting but I had no gift for color. I did, however, show the woodcuts at a gallery on West Grand Boulevard. And I submitted my prints to national and international exhibitions, which landed them in important collections. I completed my education in two years, since I was given credit connected with my military service. I had learned French in Morocco, Italian in Italy, where I made the landings near Battipaglia before being taken in trucks to Naples. The Germans had moved out, but forced a battle in Monte Casino. I had two years remaining on the GI Bill, so I decided to move to New York and ? this is characteristic of my life ? I decided to use the time to study philosophy. As an artist, I had little difficulty finding galleries in New York, and Columbia accepted me on probation, since I had not been able to take the introductory course in philosophy at Wayne. I also applied to NYU ? New York University ?, which turned me down unless I took sixteen hours of undergraduate work. Naturally I chose Columbia despite the probation, though I have to admit that I was pretty much at sea. As there was little likelihood of becoming a professor anyway, I learned what I could, meanwhile building my art career. I thought I would probably wind up an art teacher somewhere, though my work was bought and shown and reviewed. I studied with Suzanne Langer, the author of Philosophy in a New Key. Her mentor, Ernst Cassirer, who had come to Columbia as visiting professor, died abruptly in front of the Faculty as he turned to answer a student?s question, and the department appointed Suzanne to finish his courses. She was attractive and European, and entered the classroom with a cello. I wrote a paper on Kant?s Third Critique for her, which she liked a great deal. But the department was not especially supportive of her, since she was a woman. Male professors of no great distinction said that women were just not able to do philosophy. But in truth, I must admit, I could see very little connection between the philosophy of art as written by philosophers down the ages, and the great art that was displayed in the few galleries that promoted Abstract Expressionism ? Betty Parsons ,Sidney Janis, and Samuel Kootz - were the main sponsors. In April, 1949, there was an article in Life magazine on Jackson Pollock, whom it implied was the greatest living artist. That article was what drew me to New York. I decided to superimpose Pollock?s style on the German expressionist style I had adopted. But I found that I had a gift for philosophy, and began to publish articles in Mind, The Journal of Philosophy, the Review of Metaphysics etc. I wrote a worthless dissertation. I wanted to do a piece of real philosophy, but I was not yet up to that. I certainly had no interest in writing on aesthetics, since it had so little to do with the art that engaged me. I got interested in the philosophy of history, and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in the first year that they were offered, and won a year in Paris, where I naturally got interested in Existentialism. Paris was pretty much the same as it was entre les deux guerres. Naturally, I wore a beret. Meanwhile, the universities, which expanded to accommodate veterans, were hiring teachers, and I was able to find a job at the University of Colorado. I found two recently hired philosophers, Christopher Jackson, who was a student of Gilbert Ryle, and John Nelson, who was a student of Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein. I learned analytical philosophy from them, which I knew nothing about from the classes at Columbia. That really was my philosophical education, since Malcolm sent us mimeographed copies of the Blue Book, the Brown Book, and the Mathematical Notes by Wittgenstein, and we studied these together. Unfortunately, the job lasted only a year. The veterans had run out, which coincided with a generation of students born at the height of the Depression. Back in New York, I completed my dissertation, and had a piece of exceptional luck. I met one of my professors, Justus Buchler, in the book store, He offered me a job teaching in the great general education course, Contemporary Civilization. I phoned my wife, Shirley Rovetch, who had stayed in Detroit, to tell her that I had a job at Columbia. She told me that she was pregnant. Any job was precarious until one had tenure, but I jammed my foot in the door and received tenure in 1961. We took our two daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, to Paris. France was at war with its colony, Algeria. Sometimes the Seine carried the bodies of Algerians, killed by the OAS ? ?The Secret Army Organization? ? who also blew up buildings around St Germain, and began to use torture in Algiers. It was no place for children, so we drove south to the Cote d?Azur, where we found a marvelous villa on the Escalier de la Gendarmerie. I wrote my first book, Analytical Philosophy of History there Once finished with that, we moved to Rome, where we found an attico on the Via Fogliano. I spent time in the German Library, reading the bound volumes of Nietzsche?s correspondence. which led to my second book, Nietzsche as Philosopher. Both books were published in 1965. I loved writing books. At the meeting of the American Philosophical Association, someone asked if I was really publishing two books. He said he supposed they were anthologies, and I answered that they were real books. I felt that the era of articles was coming to an end. But In 1964, I wrote an essay, ?The Art World.? It raised but hardly answered the question of the difference between art works and real things, if they look indiscernible. The question arose with Andy Warhol?s show at the Stable Gallery, which consisted of copies of grocery boxes, and most particularly the Brillo Boxes, which captured my imagination. That essay changed the direction of aesthetics, but I was not to write further on the subject until 1978, the year Shirley died. The mid-sixties was a very productive time, roughly my forthieth year, which the ancients considered the prime of life. I decided to carry forward a somewhat Hegelian agenda: to write a five volume work on analytical philosophy. The unifying concept was that of representation. Analytical Philosophy of History introduced what I termed ?narrative sentences.? They accounted for the difference between stages of culture - between the Age of Enlightenment and Modernism ? though there was nophysiological difference between persons in the Eighteenth and Twentieth centuries. But I also developed a philosophy of action and a philosophy of knowledge. The fourth volume would be on art and the final volume on mind. So when I entered the Stable Gallery, my head was full of advanced philosophy, by contrast with any art historian in the world. By time I was ready for my book on art, I was tired of what was happening in analytical philosophy. I called my book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a title I encountered in a novel by Muriel Spark. Basically it advanced a definition of art as an embodied meaning. It became a base for a whole new way of thinking, and has been translated into seventeen languages. The Transfiguration brought another piece of luck. Betsy Pochoda, who had returned to the Nation magazine, after a stint at Vanity Fair. The Nation is the oldest magazine of opinion in the United States, and from the beginning published art criticism. Frederick Olmstead, the visionary designer of Central Park, was one of its first art critics. Clement Greenberg wrote for it in the Forties. But the critic, Lawrence Alloway, had gotten sick, and no one replaced him. When Betsy returned, she was bent on Lawrence, and asked around for suggestions. Ben Sonnenberg, the editor of Grand Street, suggested me. Betsy phoned one day, and invited me to write about art for the magazine. I had never thought of writing criticism, but of course I said ?Yes!? I reviewed a wonderful show at the Whitney Museum: ?Blamp! New York Art 1957-1964? and Betsy murmured ? What a thrill!?when she read it. It was great to be paid for writing, and for prompvt publication. I was the art critic for the next 25 years. Most critics in New York were extremely conservative. John Canaday and Hilton Kramer at the New York Times were savage. Time Magazine hissed at Jackson Pollock. My interest was in the new, as in the movements of the Sixties: Fluxus, Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, after which movements more or less vanished, and the interest turned to single individuals who were thought to be promising. My interest was in explaining the new work, which brought an art-world readership to the magazine. I loved being a critic, and feel that the essays I published, combined with the Transfiguration of the Commonplace, is what I shall be remembered for when I am gone. If one lives long enough and has a bit of luck, everything works out. A distant colleague in the American Society of Aesthetics, Ewa Boltuc, a Polish aesthetician, is a print collector as well as a philosopher. She spotted one of my prints for sale on the Internet, and wrote me about it. I invited her to stop by when she next came to New York. Ewa was very taken with the work, and, as a woman of action, organized an exhibition at the museum at her university in Springfield Illinois. That is not far from the University of Illinois, whose director, Randy Auxier, went to see that show, and decided that his museum must have it. All that took place in 2010. Randy felt that some of my work should be printed in the forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto. I at first resisted, arguing that the art had nothing to do with philosophy. But in the end, I came around. In 1962, I had dismantled my studio, and devoted myself to philosophy and later to criticism. But the director of the collection at Wayne State asked me to make a gift of my woodblocks, which had been gathering dust for half a century. I gladly donated them. I certainly have neither the strength nor the drive to do art any longer. But it is part of what I am, along with the rest. For some while, I have been in correspondence with Luca Del Baldo, a remarkable artist. In fact I believe him to be the greatest portraitist in the world. He did an astonishing portrait of me, and all who saw it were astonished.He has now undertaken to do portraits of philosophers of art, and publish these portraits in a book, to accompany an exhibition. I have seen several of the portraits by now - of David Carrier, Hand Belting, Richard Shusterman, and Lydia Goehr. All of these have captured their expressions beyond the possibility of photography. I am thrilled to have been witness to this outpouring of great painting, and I would like to do what I can to give his work the recognition it deserves. Whoever sees these heads, luminous with truth, will acknowledge Del Baldo's exception gifts.
(Copyright by Arthur C. Danto, 2010. All rights reserved)


Many thanks Luca, for this image! What you’ve accomplished is enormously impressive.  

I’m gratified to have been included in the project and honored to be in the company of thinkers

and writers from whom I’ve learned so much.
(Copyright by Jonathan K. Crary, 2019)


Regarding Luca’s painting, although I am its subject, any comment I might make would be third-hand. I do not trust the kind of knowing we do at third hand, no matter its subject. The truth of the image is firstly Luca’s crafted truth. Secondly it is that of the event photographer (another Italian!) whose work spurred the painter’s first steps. To me, the required comment feels like an invitation to make some effort of compensation. As though the chasm between what I am and what Luca very concretely has made could be crossed and, in the crossing, known. It cannot.  

(Copyright by Darby English, 2019)


"Dear Luca,

your project is impressive...

My problem with it is that I do not like the tone in which most of the individuals you have worked with write about themselves-- it seems to me to be too self- important, too much fuss about the individual-- what I admire those people for is not a photograph of them, but the work itself.

The final chapter of my book Roof Life ( in French Tuilages) is titled Self-Seen..I begin the chapter by considering two photographs of myself taken by my companion Michael Baxandall ( dead 10 years now) -- what interested me was not how I look but how I was seen by Michael.

I believe in the words I wrote about those pictures .

ever Svetlana"

On my desk, to the right of where | sit, there are two small photographs. They are propped up against a strip of wall in the narrow space behind the pencil box of pale wood brought back from a trip to New Zealand by one of my sons. That shadowed strip of wall, along the arm of the I-shaped desk beneath the high wall of book shelves, is layered with bits of paper. Phone numbers, addresses, postcards, some resonant words printed out from friends’ e-mails and more are all tacked up. The photographs are not of family or friends. They are photographs made of me by M.

It happens that they both were taken from the same distance and angle—the face seen close-up in % view from the left and slightly below, body seen to the waist in a black top, eyes looking to my right. | have gotten used to myself in that expanded profile, hair pushed back, the further eye and cheek glimpsed beyond the large nose, a shadowed crease leading down from it to the corner of the mouth, the line of the jaw interrupted by a bit of loose flesh. In the photograph at the right, the arms are raised, hands behind head, elbows jutting out from sleeves pushed up, back resting against the curve of a white plastic chair with a blur of garden leaves beyond. In the left one, the face and neck in bright light stand out above the v-neck of a black sweater before an interior wall faintly seen.

People often don’t like how they look in photographs. But what does that mean? How do you know how you look, or what you look like --an odd phrase that is. When | look to the right and see the photographs, that is me. There | am as seen, known and the point is, made known to myself through M’s eyes. The face in the photos doesn't smile. lt is at rest, set, but in a relaxed way, conscious perhaps of being observed. Disposed to being looked at, let’s say. M. is there indirectly too, in the record of how he saw me after lunch sitting in a chair in the garden of the gite at Dracy and again a year or so later standing in twilight in the splendid 18" century salon of the apartment in Dijon lent us by friends.

(Copyright by Svetlana Alpers, 2013.  From "Roof Life". Courtesy Yale University Press)



What exactly is a portrait? I sometimes begin to think about such
questions with etymologies, which present themselves as true, original
meanings, but which instead serve the good purpose of raising more questions
rather than they answer. The word portrait, which appears late in European
languages, is from the Latin pro and trahere, the two together meaning “to draw
forth. ) The word “draw” in the sense of making “drawings”, is also from trahere,
but the Latin has nothing to do with making images, and more to do with such
activities as drawing water, drawing breath, or drawing conclusions. The Italian
ritrarre, is also from the Latin trahere, and must mean something like “to draw
forth again”, as if the subject had somehow been drawn forth from somewhere to
begin with, and the painter was repeating that process. Into the world came a
soul named Lisa, who would be painted by Leonardo da Vinci. But just what did
Leonardo “draw forth” in her portrait? There is, after all, much more speculation
about the inwardness of Leonardo than about that of a Florentine lady he
painted. More generally, how could the metaphor of “drawing forth” settle into
modern languages as a satisfactory characterization of “taking the likeness” of an
Luca’s paintings are made from photographs provided by their subject. I
offered a selection. The first photograph I sent was taken by my wife Nancy with
her smart phone. It was a sympathetic snapshot, but the resolution was too low.
The second batch was taken by my son-in-law, Mark Whittle, an astronomer who
works on the Big Bang. He has a better camera, and, as a student of
photography thinks at once in terms of lighting, contrast and composition. At this
point, art—including the conventions of portraiture--enters the picture. His four or
five photographs, like my wife’s, were sympathetic. The final choice of the image
to be painted was made by Luca. We have never met, and perhaps one of the
photos looked to him like the fellow he imagined as he read the work that earned
me an invitation to his project. I am glad he chose the one he did. I like to look
like that.
I am in the habit of thinking of what happened in the past to make possible
what is taken for granted in the present. In the most general terms, to “take” a
photograph is to seize and fix an instantaneous bundle of light. It is only fairly
recently that it has been possible to do that. Exactly that bundle will never
happen again, and is only removed from the incessant flow of time, or takes
another place in the flow of time, in the photograph itself, which also can never
happen again, and may last indefinitely, but not forever. The photographer
chooses what to photograph, but, as the word “photography” itself suggests, the
light does the drawing. What does it mean to paint a photograph, or to make a
portrait with a photograph?
A photograph is instantaneous, but the possibility of taking photographs
stands at the end of the long, slow history of optics. Euclid described the act of
vision geometrically, and some 800 years later, Alhazen argued that all points on
illuminated surfaces are reflected in all directions in non-interfering linear rays.
This definition of light made it possible to describe Euclid’s geometry in terms of
light and the structure of the eye, which would be progressively clarified by
anatomy, making it possible to explain how our individual “points of view” are
possible in the great dazzle of universal light in which we live our lives. As might
be expected, Alhazen experimented with the camera obscura, the “dark room”
that gives the modern camera its name. Rays of light pass through a small
opening, crossing to create an image on a facing surface that is exactly point-for-
point, but inverted and reversed. A glass lens (from the Latin word for lentil), a
bead of polished glass, might be placed at the opening, refracting and focusing
the rays of light. This new optical formula was quick to yield eyeglasses (14 th
century) painter’s perspective (15 th century) and at the beginning of the 17 th
century Johannes Kepler identified the retina at the back of the eye as the “little
net” or “painting”, as he called it, where the rays of light admitted to the eyes
register. Descartes thought that vision must finally take place in the brain.
There are actually very few portraits based on the transfer of points of light
I have described. There are, however, countless images of people, many of
which are called portraits. Most of these are to one extent or another images of
status. It is as important that an image of the pharaoh, emperor, or pope
represent the office of the person depicted as it is that it exactly resemble the
individual in that office. Many portraits are even labeled in order to make their
identity clear, and the best portraits are praised, not for their exact
correspondence to appearance, but for the painter’s interpretation of the
character of the sitter.
Most of us are able to see perfectly well, but only some of us can portray
others. At least that was true before photography, running the gamut from mug
shots to portrait photography, the second of which may be as much a status
image as a likeness. Oil painting, like photography, was made a major art form
in order to depict light. Portraiture in painting requires talent, skill, time and
materials, and so portraits are always relatively expensive. We may consider the
Fayum portraits of Roman Egypt, which combined the ancient mummy casket
and mask with three-quarters strongly modeled and highlighted portraits in the
Greek manner. Those depicted were individuals of means, and often wear their
best jewelry. Their eyes are open, making them alive, presumably to show that
the person whose remains have been prepared for eternal life in the casket
below them sees in the next life. The few shone full-face are connected with the
“Eastern” styles that would supplant the classical Mediterranean tradition.
In my full-face portrait, the tonality is high against a dark but rich
background with slight suggestions of textiles or architectural forms. The high
resolution photograph has served as a reliable guide for the painter, like a GPS,
detailing such slight asymmetries as the shapes of my eyes or skull. I brighten in
four stages. As a layer of paint dries another is superimposed, creating the
energy in virtual space of something forming, something coming together around
a center. As paint becomes light it becomes texture atop and around this virtual
spatial event. This texture-light does not simply describe or express, rather it
seems to seek to join the light in which the painting itself stands. The light in my
eyes, reflecting the light of my living room in which the photograph was taken,
becomes in the painting the light in which the viewer stands. My gaze is level
and steady as I see that space and that viewer. As I smile slightly my eyebrows
rise slightly, my face cracks slightly and comes to life.
We are born with creases in our hands, which some think foreshadow our
character and fate, but creases in our faces appear as our fate becomes the
irreversible unfolding of our life. These creases and wrinkles, if not caused by
joys, love, cares, and grief, come together with joys, love, cares and grief. This
line might be the trace of seeing the girl I would love and marry, others might be
the birth of our children, the death of our parents, the arrivals and departures of
friends and family, another spring, another winter, all and always with more to
come. The portrait is drawn from life, and is given life by the painter.

(Copyright by David  Summers, 2019).


"Luca  del  Baldo  Portrait"

After first meeting Luca del Baldo through email and learning about his project, I was deeply skeptical,
then amused, and finally enthusiastic. We went back and forth, writing about painters we admired and
looking at his series of portrait paintings of men and women considerably more accomplished than I am.
Yet, the one easy part, for me, was the choice of a photograph to send him--- a very recent one taken on
the sunny terrace of a restaurant in Dallas by my friend and colleague, the architectural critic and
historian Mark Lamster, with whom I was having a negroni, shortly after a return from Naples. Mark had
liked my jaunty new glasses and my silly grin, had taken out his cell phone, and VOILA!
I loved it and sent it immediately to Luca, who also responded well to it. Then his transformations
began. A busy terrace scene became a quivering background of browns like a 19 th century ébauche. The
format was tightened to focus on my face, but the lopsided grin and the eyes—squinting against the
Texas sun—were retained. And my teeth--- the color of those of a venerable bull walrus—were
celebrated, un-whitened by current dental wizardry or artist’s license.
He sent it at various stages—the first with too much hair on top--- he must be balding too, I thought--
which I insisted that he remove or reduce. The tonal transitions, at first quite crude, tightened
considerably, but retained the sense of rapid observation and transcription which is so important for my
“take” on the aesthetic of Impressionist painters I have studied for half a century.
What to think of it? Art historians tend to think “visually”—by association with other works of art in our
memory banks--- what my alter-ego Paul Gauguin called “memoire des yeux.” And this method fits well
with the idea of “occularity” promulgated by Luca--- an idea with which I continue to grapple.
First there were the numerous version of “Les Grimaces” in French art of the early 19 th century,
particular Louis Leopold Boilly and, to a lesser extent, Honoré Daumier. And then what popped into my
mind were the wonderful heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt I had so admired as an undergraduate,
especially his self-portrait laughing of about 1777. The animation of the faces in the “Grimaces” and in
most Messerschmidt sculptures has always intrigued me--- faces alive with muscular “gesture” with
their wrinkles, crease lines, and deep crevices, most of which perform a parallel rhythmic dance across
the face.
I remembered as well learning once that that the word “Grimace” has its origins in the Greek word for
“Mask,” and I immediately realized that, in choosing the photograph, I had chosen an image of the mask
of comedy, with eyes almost shut and a big smile, that one sees so often on playbills and relief
sculptures in Euro-American theaters. This made me realize that, in many ways, I aspire to be the “comic
muse of art history,” an entertainer, more adept on the lecture stage or in the classroom than on the
page and, in the latter case, happier writing for what Virginia Wolf called the “common reader” than for
my colleagues in art history departments.
I prefer to present arguments and ideas with a sleight of hand or even a joke, using information and
historical facts as grace notes or ornaments in Baroque music—to enliven and personalize the structure
of the work of art. So, I wear my comic mask for Luca and, thus, for his selected viewers.

The next levels of association for me were the sequence of “portraits” of ordinary people by Frans Hals
that represent them with their eyes squinting and the mouths broadly open in a smile, a particular
favorite being THE LAUGHING FISHERBOY of 1628 in a private aristocratic collection in Westphalia that I
know only from photographs. The pose is completely different, but the sense of the carefree, joyous life
is one which I so admire—it is so rare that “great” works of art make us laugh or smile, and Hals was
clearly unable to do something so apparently silly when painting commissioned portraits of his Haarlem
burgers, no matter how apparently slapdash his brushwork. Also, of course, the famous Malle Babbe in
the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, which I remember vividly seeing for the first time, after I had seen the
copy in storage at the MET and the sly copy by Courbet in Munich.
Unlike the laughing fisherboy, Malle Babbe has been identified as a mentally ill or an alcoholic woman
from Haarlem in much modern scholarship, and this association took me on another train of
associations to a time years ago when I was writing about what may have been Degas’ only
commissioned portrait-- of Mme. Deitz Monin at the Art Institute of Chicago. This gouache and metallic
paint on silk exhibited originally as “Portrait after a Costume Ball” was rejected because the sitter,
whose mouth was wide open revealing her teeth, thought that she looked drunk. This again, made me
riff on the Comic Muse—the Dionysian figure of earthy drunkenness, whose love of eating and drinking
defines his character. I too adore to eat and drink with pleasure and abandon, and to talk while in semi-
intoxicated or heightened states about art. No wonder I study Gauguin, who had cases of Bordeaux
shipped to the Marquesan Islands at the end of his short life.
This train of works took me next to the wonderful series of paintings of laughing boys done early in the
last century by one of the US’s most gestural artists, Robert Henri, whose book THE ART SPIRIT, I have
admired since I was a boy in Colorado. Each of these paintings—whether by Hals or Henri—are what we
were trained to call “painterly,” but which I prefer to call gestural because, although the material of oil
paint IS important, it is trumped by the idea of the painting as a performance of gestures, and this idea
is very much alive in del Baldo’s portrait of me. It is, of course, no accident that, during the course of our
e-friendship, we talked often of what we were each cooking or eating about when we might eat or drink
together in either Como or Dallas.
Then the eyes and the glasses. How can one do a portrait about “occularity” of a subject who lives by his
eyes in combination with his mind and memory in which you can’t even SEE the eyes. What color are
they? Are they blinded by the light? Is the grimace a form of ocular protection? The glasses and their
blue-green color are utterly “now,” but look back to the long tradition of the representation of the
human figure with glasses. My favorite example is one that is local to me, Esteban Murillo’s wonderful
FOUR FIGURES ON A STEP in the Kimbell Art Museum, whose wise older lady wears prominent black-
rimmed glasses to see the painting’s presumed male viewed clearly and to size up his
interests—perhaps, as some art historians have suggested, of a sexual nature.
How different she is than the artist who stares at himself in the mirror with the aid of glasses in one of
the two versions of Chardin’s pastel self-portraits in the Louvre (1775) and the Institute of Chicago
(1776). For Chardin, there is no smile, no facial cue to mood or state of mind. Only a clear-eyed and
steady gaze into the mirror that, becomes the artist appears with the aid of a visor which protects his
eyes from strong light, he can gaze with open pupils at himself. There is no such protective visor in del
Baldo’s portrait of an art historian who was, when the photograph behind it was taken, just five years
younger than the famous French artist at the end of the ancient regime. Indeed, the absence of the visor

means that the sun glints brightly on the plastic “glass” of the lenses, turning them into both windows to
the slit-eyes and mirrors of the light-struck world at which they gaze. Mirrors and windows—the two
greatest metaphors for pictures themselves—are brought together in del Baldo’s painted glasses.
One could write a book about the representation of glasses, monocles, and other “viewing devices” in
western art history--- perhaps it has already been written, but here the work itself raises all the
necessary questions associated with this trope without the need of precedence. Perhaps the chief
originality of the glasses lies in their brilliant color—hard actually to name with precision—and its
chromatic interaction with the ruddy hues of a healthy face and the “neutral” beiges, whites, and blue-
gray of the rest of the portrait. If there is “occularity” in the picture, it is less in the eyes than in the
glasses—oddly appropriate because my eyes are actually blue.
When I contemplated this project, my mind eventually came back to my own personal relationship with
one of the greatest artists I have ever known—with the delightfully unlikely name of Ivan Le Lorraine
Albright. Ivan and I met on the tarmac of Heathrow Airport nearly forty years ago when a couple known
to me only as “Mr. and Mrs. Albright” from Vermont joined a small group of prominent donors to the
Art Institute of Chicago on a specially arranged tour of country house collections in England led by me,
then the newly appointed Curator of European Painting. Ivan was a tiny man who wore thick glasses and
spoke with such speed and intensity that he often inter-folded sentences one into the other, requiring
the listener to separate them into intelligible speech. His intellectual energy was tumultuous, and his
ability to look at pictures so practiced at the age of 83 that only a youthful curator (I was 30) would have
the audacity to spar with him in front of pictures. We started, I recall, at Burghley House and were
moving confidently as practiced interlocutors by the time we were with David Bomford in the Old
Master Galleries of the National Gallery--- a young art historian and an elderly artist, looking intently
together and talking with a conservator.
Ivan Albright had essentially stopped painting by that time, but the trip so invigorated him that I kept
pressing him to take up the brush again, which he finally agreed to do if I went to his art supply man in
Chicago and had them make head-sized panels for him to make his final collective masterpiece—a series
of self-portrait first shown at the Hood Museum art Dartmouth and eventually given to The Art Institute
of Chicago. He worked on the series with total determination until his death in 1983, just two years after
we met, and his self-portraits benefitted not only from his completely original technical experimentation
with the various mediums on prepared panels, but also with his almost unparalleled visual memory of
western art history.
The one in which he wore the glasses he needed to use for distant seeing is one of my favorites, and it
differs from Luca del Baldo’s portrait of me in that we see completely through the lenses to his own
eyes--- tired, but practiced as they were. As I look at it today I am reminded just how vital the eyes and
visual memories of artists are to the adventure of looking at works of art practiced by art
historians—whose technique is usual limited to words, sentences, and paragraphs. As he looked at
himself in his studio in Woodstock Vermont, he was utterly alone, but in making the paintings, there
were always two of him—the one in the mirror and the one in the painting. For me, not able to make my
own self-portrait, two intermediaries were required--- my friend Mark Lamster and my new friend Luca
del Baldo. Because of them, I can look at a painting and see myself anew.

(Copyright by Richard Brettell, 2019).


"Sketch for a Portrait of Portraits"

In the days before photography, portrait painting was commonly used to
acquaint one’s friends and family, and most especially a possible future spouse,
with what one looked like. Portraits were therefore frequently used when the
wealthy were negotiating a possible marriage. Politically, the cult of personality
relies significantly on disseminating caring and avuncular pictures of powerful
men and women, almost always in a flattering light; these photographic portraits
often become iconic weapons, to be used in sustaining the powerful in power.
Enduring examples are to be found in the iconic portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Che
Guevara, and Eva Peron, among many others.
Yet, if the purpose of portraits is simply to acquaint others of what one looks like,
or to act as a constant reminder to vulnerable crowds of where political power
lies, portraits would soon outlive their usefulness, once the person portrayed
departs the scene or power changes hands. But portraits, or rather good ones,
are enduring; they have a longevity far surpassing those they portray and a long-
term value that is very nearly totally independent of the identity of the person
being portrayed.
Michelangelo was right when, reproved because his sculptures of members of
the (then) powerful Medici family bore no resemblance to the actual members of
that family, replied, “In a thousand years’ time, who will remember what the
Medicis looked like!”, implying with his usual but justified arrogance that his
sculptures will far outlive members of the Medici family, which, unsurprisingly,
is what happened.
On the other hand, lesser known, or indeed totally unknown, mortals have been
propelled to fame, and sometimes lasting fame, because of their portraits. There
are many good examples; one that I like is Velazquez’s portrait of his mulatto
assistant Juan de Pareja, which Britain disgracefully allowed to be exported to
the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the early 1970s. To the general public,
he is virtually unknown; he is little known even among artists, in spite of the fact
that a painting of his, La vocación de San Mateo, hangs in the Prado Musuem in
Madrid. It is Velazquez’s portrait of him, and that alone, that has made Juan de
Pareja him famous.
Why should this be so? Velazquez’s masterly portrait of Juan de Pareja  conveys a character more powerfully than volumes of detailed written explanation could do.

 No wonder that, when first exhibited in Rome in the 1660s,
it "received such universal acclaim that, in the opinion of all the painters of
different nations, everything else seemed like painting but this alone like truth”. I
say “a character” rather than “the character”, because the value of this painting
lies significantly in the perception that it is characteristic of a certain personality
and could thus be a portrayal of many individuals who share that personality and
character. Its validity as a portrait stretches well beyond de Pareja; indeed, it is
not a portrait but a portrayal. This is characteristic of many great portraits, when
the person portrayed, whether famous or humble, whether known or unknown,
becomes irrelevant because the character portrayed alone becomes dominant.
Every part of this magnificent portrait is executed with masterly strokes but the
part that arrests is the face, even in spite of the fact that it is not the largest, most
luminous or brightest part of the portrait. That the face comes to dominate a
painting is made even more obvious in the youthful Rembrandt’s self-portrait
 in which the face, apart from the right cheek, is almost completely
obscured; yet even through that obscurity, the portrait manages to convey the
expression on the face.
Why should this be so is a question that is interesting to consider from a
neurobiological point of view.
Why is this so?
One of the most fundamental functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge
about the world and it has to do so against the constantly changing signals that
reach it from surfaces and objects. To obtain constant knowledge in a world
where the information reaching the brain is never constant from moment to
moment, the brain must strive to stabilize the world. This it does by searching
for essentials or constants, with varying degrees of success. I believe that the
portrait artist also searches for constants – and specifically for constants of
Faces carry a great deal of information – about the object itself (namely that it is
a face), the identity of the face, its age, race, psychological disposition at any
given moment, the character behind the face and much else besides. It is
therefore not surprising that faces should have a very privileged position in
terms of representation in the brain, with three and possibly more areas devoted
to the perception of faces. Between them, these areas register many of the details
of a face outlined above. They are moreover able, in ways that remain still to be
clarified in precise neurbiological terms, to stabilize a face. For example, we are
able to classify a face as belonging to a particular person regardless of the angle
or distance from which we view it, the lighting conditions in which it is viewed,
or whether it is happy or sad. Through this stabilization there results a certain
constancy to faces; this constancy is the result of a brain operation, the precise
details of which remain unknown.
Between them, the areas of the brain that are critical for the perception of faces
appear to register every departure from what one presumes is an inherited brain
template of what a normal face should look like, if it is to be registered as a
normal face. Such is the prominence of normal face representation in the brain
that the British painter, Francis Bacon, who had the avowed aim of giving “a
visual shock”, usually managed to give that “shock” by traducing and mutilating
faces (and bodies) on his canvases though he rarely did the same for objects.
Physiological experiments show that even slight adjustments of the face, for
example a misalignment of the two halves of the face (which is trivial compared
to what Bacon did in his paintings), leads to a significant change in the electrical
signals from the brain in response to the viewing of faces. Bacon’s choice, of
mutilating faces and bodies to deliver his “visual shock”, should therefore not be
surprising. We are born with an inherited or very rapidly acquired template of
what normal faces and bodies should look like but we do not have equivalent
templates for what objects should look like; indeed it is difficult to decide
whether there is such a thing as a “normal” object, except that which we become
accustomed to through experience. Instead, knowledge of objects is acquired at
various stages after birth and is modified throughout life. Judging by the
appraisal of his work given by ordinary people as well as art critics, Bacon
succeeded admirably in his aim, because he traduced a template that we are born
Perceptual experiments suggest that the brain also appears to have a template
for recognizing that a certain pattern of muscular contractions is expressive of a
certain state of mind, for example of happiness or sadness. Although it has been
the subject of much debate, the current consensus is that this is also a
pancultural attribute, in that the same expression is conveyed by the same
pattern of muscular contraction in different races and cultures; one can therefore
communicate, acquire and impart knowledge to people of diverse ethnic and
cultural backgrounds by using the same muscles, contracted in a similar way, to
convey the same emotions.
How the brain achieves such feats is not really well understood in terms of
specific and detailed neural mechanisms. Even less understood in
neurobiological terms is the depiction of character; indeed the question itself has
not been posed. Do we have a brain template that specifies a character which the
artist taps into when painting and the viewer uses when perceiving? This is not
such an outrageous suggestion. After all, the character of Juan de Pareja is
universally recognisable by those of different cultures and backgrounds, thus
implying that whatever the neurological mechanisms that signify a given
character to a given viewer, they must be common to all humans.
If neurobiology has not even started to address this issue, artists have done so
with relative ease for centuries. Artists, in many ways, are neurobiologists
without realising it, as I argued many years ago; they achieve their effects by
experimenting but with methods unique to them. In portraying a person’s
character through their face, artists also stabilize the image they convey by
discarding a lot of information and choosing from that only those non-changing,
constant, characteristics that will be useful in depicting character. What are the
features that they choose to depict and portray a character? No one knows;
artists themselves don’t really know, except that they achieve the desired effect
through experimentation on canvas – the desired effect being one that satisfies
them and which, they presume, will satisfy other brains as well since they make,
implicitly and unconsciously, the reasonable assumption that other brains will
perceive the same significant features in their portrait as they themselves do.
What are the attributes and features that Velazquez chose to depict the character
of Juan de Pareja and others who share the same character? He hasn’t told us and
nor has anyone else. But we all know what character it is when we see his
painting. Nor has Luca del Baldo told us what features he chose in portraying my
character. In a way, he does not need to; his portrait says it all.
Hence, the very same questions asked above may be asked here of my portrait by
Luca del Baldo. It is instructive to compare his portrait of me to my photographic
portrait by the Polish photographer Bartosz Siedlik (Figure 3). Superficially,
they are alike, yet it does not take much effort or imagination to realise that they
are significantly different. I will not enumerate the differences here but leave to
the viewer to do so.
What is interesting is that both portraits convey a character, and both the
photographer and the painter require considerable skill to do so. Time-wise, that
skill is different for the two: the photographer has to capture a moment in time
when the appearance of his subject conveys to the photographer, even if
momentarily, the subject’s character. That is no a trivial skill and requires a
relatively rapid decision. For the painter, the task is no less extraordinary and
requires no less skill, even if there is not such a time constraint. Perhaps the
painter can work and re-work the portrait, adding an inflection here, a subtle
shading there, the slight elongation of a feature elsewhere, all of which
contribute to the final product.
The difference between two is that the painter has not only to capture the
character but to paint it as well.
Is there an objective way of identifying what, pictorially, constitutes, character?
Art historians believe that there sometimes is. It is said, for example, that
portraying someone looking at us with the eyes alone, the head being turned
away, was a Venetian habit of conveying haughtiness and disdain, Titian’s
portrait of Geralomo Barbarigo at the National Gallery in London
barbarigo ) being an example (some consider it to be a self portrait by Titian).
Does it depend on one feature, or more; or perhaps does it depend upon several
features brought together in a special way, to which the artist alone holds the
secret. Can Luca del Baldo himself tell us, or is it an unconscious process the key
to which lies in an artist’s talent, of which he himself is not even aware?
As a neurobiologist, I find it interesting to ask what features or combination of
features are required to depict a character. Is it determined by the
neurobiological processes in a single cortical area or in the several areas that are
critical for the perception of faces? Does it require the collaboration of visual and
non-visual brain areas? At present, the artist alone knows that, but
unconsciously. And his answer lies in the portrait alone. Hence my belief,
articulated many times before, that the neurobiologist has a great deal to learn
from the artist in studying the organization of the brain, by studying the products
of artists. In this instance the question raised, but not asked experimentally
before, is: what are the features and the underlying neural processes that depict
character in a face?
Oscar Wilde probably knew more about the brain instinctively than many others.
To have said, as he did, that, “It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the
apple is odorous, that the skylark sings” implies a profound understanding of
what the brain does, an understanding that far surpasses what most thought
about the brain’s capacities at the time he wrote, and for many years afterwards.
His insight went further. It is quite extraordinary to fuse images in the way the
Velazquez did, or that Luca del Baldo does here, in order to give a real life
impression of what a certain character will look like in a single, unique, portrait.
This is one reason why we value not only portraits but art in general. As Oscar
Wilde put it in his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, “I treated Art as the supreme
reality and life as a mere mode of fiction”.
I shall for long study Luca del Baldo’s portrait carefully to learn what it says
about me and to gain insights from that into the possible neurobiological
mechanisms involved.

(Copyrights by Semir  Zeki, 2019).