Monday, August 01, 2011

Hair and Razors

I spent my day today at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

A few years ago now, I heard David Scott Kastan give a fascinating paper on beards. Basically, he'd gotten to thinking about all the beard comments in plays and such, and wondered how many men wore beards. So he looked at a lot of named portraits, and did some counting, and found that something like 80% of the men who were named in portraits were shown with a beard in the early modern period. (Caveat: I'm vaguely remembering the statistic. And I'm not quite remembering how he defined his period. But the point is, most of the men who were named in portraits--and thus who might reasonably be thought to be an attempt to represent a specific man as he appeared--are shown with beards.)

So, of course, I was paying attention to beards. It's like all the men have them from, say, H8 to Charles 2, and suddenly most men stop wearing beards after Charles 2. And with Charles 2, I noticed, men especially start wearing really big hair, serious hair, hair that would make your most stereotypical 80s hair band type jealous. Or wigs, I'm willing to guess, in a lot of cases.

Did all the royalists come back from France with big hair and a preference for French theatrical practices? How could the big hair/wig fashion really get started? And who's providing hair for the wigs? Are they real hair?

And then slowly, wigs start getting small and powdered, and then disappearing altogether.

I was especially interested in just what you'd expect. I saw the Holbein "Ambassadors," (that's a link to the National Gallery site) because I was looking for it, and the anamorphosis worked a LOT better for me in person than it ever has on a page. But still, why put that in this picture? And why not in ones of H8? I was sitting there with the painting for a bit, and a tour group came through, I think a Japanese language tour. So I couldn't understand what was said, but it was cool to watch the tour people go up at the end and check out the skull.

Meanwhile, I got fascinated by the crucifix. Up in the upper left hand corner, that slit of darkness, there's a crucifix there. You can see Jesus in part, arms outspread in a typical crucifix pose, but he's mostly hidden. (I suppose it could be a random guy being crucified, but...) Go look; I'll wait. (The site I linked has a way to make the image big, so do that and you'll see what I mean.) So is that a hidden Catholic symbol? (the guy on the right is a bishop, visiting the French ambassador to England, the guy on the left.) Or, to say it another way, is that a partly hidden Catholic symbol put there to remind someone that Catholicism iis a hiddent factor, threat, benefit, something?

Cool, isn't it? I wish I knew an early modern art history person to ask. (Does anyoone?)

I also sat a bit with the Arnolfini Portrait. I'm linking to Wikipedia here, because it's got a close up of the chandeleer, and it's fascinating that there's one candle only burning in the chandeleer. You wouldn't think that would provide much light, would you? Is there an uglier portrait sitter than Mr. Arnolfini there? Seriously?

And that was my day. I had a lovely time, mostly looking at early modern stuff, because I really like potraits of people I've heard of. Wriothesley (speaking of pronunciation confusion!) looks like a courtier, indeed. I don't quite know what his breastplate is doing floating there by his leg, but it sort of fits my idea of an obnoxious courtier. (I know, he was Shakespeare's patron, but seriously, he looks like a fop.)

Sir Philip Sidney could step right out of his picture and be a modern young man. (There are a lot of young men these days with that front swoop bit sticking up on their hair.) Of course, he could only dress that way in some clubs these days.


  1. Thanks for the art history lesson. Loved perusing the paintings with you!

  2. Jurgis Baltrusaitis' book Anamorphic Art has a detailed discussion of the painting and its symbolism.