Fashions in faces and beauty change just as they do in clothing. Often portraits of famous beauties of the past fail to convey that magic to modern viewers, who just can't figure out how THAT face launched a thousand ships - or at least rocked some long-ago king's world.
And then there are portraits that seem almost shockingly modern, with faces that stand out in a gallery like a misplaced time-traveller. I saw this young lady yesterday in the Winterthur Museum, and had exactly that response. Painted by colonial artist John Durand around the time of the American Revolution, her face to me seemed as modern as any other teenager at the mall today. The museum's placard:
In 1834, an early critic of John Durand's work called his style "hard and dry." Durand's charming portrayal of the then-unmarried Miss Briggs as a woman of talent with a confident gaze and self-assured presence belies this assessment. By selecting a cittern – a Renaissance-style stringed instrument – and fashionable garb for her portrait, Dorothy Briggs declared herself both a member of the Virginia gentry and a woman of the world.
Maybe it's that "confident gaze and self-assured presence" that make Dorothy stand apart from other, more demure women's' portraits from the same time period. Maybe it's the little wisps of her dark hair that have slipped free around her ears, or the way she wears her elaborate silk gown with such nonchalance. What's your opinion - do you think she looks more 18th century than 21st?
Update: Although Winterthur's placard listed Dorothy's instrument as a cittern, two of our sharp-eyed friends - Neal Hurst and Natalie Garbett have since more correctly identified it as an English guitar, an instrument popular in 18thc Britain. Here's an example of one from the Ashmolean Museum via Natalie. Thanks to you both!
Above: Dorothy Pleasants Briggs (Mrs. John Nicholas), by John Durand, 1775-1782. Photo by Herb Crossan, Winterthur Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.