Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Modern Face in an 18th c. Painting

Thursday, October 16, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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.

17 comments:

MrsC (Maryanne) said...

I totally get that too. Over on TheDreamstress.com, this week's Rate the Dress is the same - a young man who looks like a real person. It's quite unnerving.
I think it is when a painter consciously or unconsciously defies the fashionable facial feature interpretation of the time, maybe because their subject simply doesn't fit the mould? She definitely has a modern air about her - I can see her in a tank top and jeans with a back pack over her shoulder!

Yve said...

To me, her face still seems of a bygone time but the painting is really interesting. There is definitely a Renaissance hardness and graphic quality that would have defied the popular painting styles of the time. I wonder if the artist suggested that medieval instrument or if it subconsciously affected his painting style after she chose it. It is something you imagine a Botticelli Angels playing rather than a thoroughly modern (for the times) Miss from Virginia. I must try and find some more of his work.

Sarah said...

To me, the first thought was of Roman encaustic portraits during the period when there was a fashion for portraits on coffins aping Egyptian mummy cases but in true Roman style, or a Roman mosaic. She reminds me of a female athlete on a mosaic, the same bold confident stare. Though I don't argue with Yve's comment about Botticelli, though Yve was commenting on the musical instrument, I can see something of Botticelli's Venus in her. Maybe rather than a modern face she is blessed with a timeless face....

The Greenockian said...

She certainly looks like she knows her mind. Wouldn't like to disagree with her.
Liz

Lil said...

The first thing I thought of when I saw her was Modigliani.

Mantelli said...

The way her chain loops around her neck makes her look a little like a cut and paste collage.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I like the description of being "timeless", proved by the comparisons you're all making to other artists and time periods. She could easily fit in any of them.

Unfortunately there's very little known about the artist, John Durand. Here's a brief bio:

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1255.html?artobj_artistId=1255&pageNumber=1

It's always tantalizing to try to analyze who or what influenced 18th c. American painters, since they would have been so artistically isolated in the colonies. While they might have seen the work of European contemporaries in the homes of their patrons, or in engravings, they were working in a kind of vacuum. I thought of Boticelli, too, but I can't imagine how Durard would ever have seen one of Boticelli's paintings. But you never know...there are a lot of gaps in that biography!

Helen Marshall said...

She looks very 21st century. I hope her husband appreciated her spirit and confidence.

Helen K said...

Her bold gaze and confidence certainly give her a modern air, but her features seem biracial, which I think pushes her even more into the 21 century.

Carol said...

Definitely a "Rock Star" pose!

Dana S. said...

She kind of makes me think of Jennifer Tilly the actress. Maybe it is the expression that seems so modern as she looks kind of like she thinks something is a bit funny.

Deb Watley said...

The painting reminds me of modern high school senior photos.

Yve said...

Your blog is so interesting and informative! I have been trying to find out more about the elusive Mr John Durand and his very eclectic painting style: it appears he ran away to sea before finishing his apprenticeship to an established portrait painter in England. So of humble origins? I can imagine him itching to escape his servitude and dreaming of making his fortune in "the colonies". The fact that he never served his time clearly shows in the handful of examples of his work I've found but that makes him more interesting. He clearly found freedom and a way to become his own man in the States. I imagine he would have had lots to chat about with that feisty young lady while she sat for her portrait, they both seem to have had a slightly rebellious streak ;o)

Tamara Van Kirk said...

I know what you mean. My grandmother always had a "depression style face'. It never changed, she looked the same her whole life, from a teen to old age. I have seen many photos of women or girls during the depression and my grandmother's face fits right in.

Samantha said...

Hmmm... I think she and I have some similar facial features... ;-)

bluefalling said...

I am the inverse. I have been told many times that period (any) suits me. Regency, 18c, Victorian, Elizabethan. Something about the roundess of my face and my coloring. I look at myself done up and it looks more right than modern looks. I can't place why.

Natalie L. said...

I remember thinking the same thing about this painting when I saw it at Winterthur a couple of months ago. I really need to get back there and spend more time wandering about.

 
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