February 28, 2011

Jacques-Louis David’s “Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife”

This wonderful painting is a depiction of a scientist and his wife. In addition to being very well rendered the pose of the man is very expressive, yet natural. He has just stopped his work to glance up at his wife as if he isn’t sure why she has come to lean on him. The woman’s hands are posed in such a way that she appears graceful and delicate.

I particularly appreciate the subdued energy of this piece brought about by organizing objects–that is, by selective presentation. For instance, the parallel shapes of the man’s leg, the woman’s right arm, her left hand, the center-line of her face, the quill pen and the black portfolio case to the left of the canvas all contribute to this effect by repetition. Although its direction is reversed, it is not coincidental that the angle of the shadow on the wall is very nearly the same as the angle of these objects.

Although it is commonly thought to be the purpose of portraiture, I do not believe the artistic value of this painting—or of any art portrait—is that it captured the identity of the sitters. Not only do I have no way of knowing if these two people were actually hard-working or graceful, it is also irrelevant to the piece as a work of art. The purpose of art—to present a view of life in order to fulfill a unique need of the conscious mind—is the same no matter what subject is represented and there are not different criteria for different subjects. While these people may or may not have been productive and graceful, the important thing is that this painting depicts man as productive and graceful. This is one reason why a painting of someone like Napoleon can still be appreciated, and even loved, as a work of art. I expect this is why Rand was a great admirer of Dalí’s crucifixion.

I once heard about a novelist who ran a contest with a unique prize: he promised to use the winner’s name for a minor character in his book. Obviously, the author was willing to take a chance that the winner’s name would not be perceived as significant to the plot (such as a last name like “Goodman” or “Hitler”). When individuals commission artists to present their likeness in a painting, for the rational artist, it is very much like the scenario of the novelist and the contest-winner—irrelevant. Unless the commissioner has some unusual feature that would be significant to the view expressed in the piece the artist is free to represent their likeness without concern that the function of the work as art is weakened.

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