Updated: Feb 14, 2021
With museums shuttered during quarantine, a fascinating movement emerged across the world. If I can no longer see my favorite works of art, why don’t I experience them differently by trying to re-create them? See, for example, The Getty Challenge or Tussen kunst en quarantaine. Our homeschooling co-op engaged in a friendly competition in this vein. Introducing our children to the Humanities is one of our core principles; students memorize poems, recognize the significance of key moments in history and learn to identify works of art. We hope to provide them with a foundation of knowledge they can build upon when they leave for high school. The art history component is enhanced by regular trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, home to several pieces in the curriculum.
The project was fun. Kindling creativity certainly ameliorated the monotony of quarantine. . But until I participated, I did not appreciate how re-creating art can help you understand the nuances of the work. Consider portraiture: what did the artist intend to capture? Was it a mood, a spontaneous moment in time, or something fundamental about the sitter’s character? What is ephemeral and what is essential? How do you capture those subtleties? We can think about it in Aristotelian terms: we are not simply trying to mimic the artwork’s appearance but convey the significance and the essence of the sitter.
The McDaniel family superbly recreated Hans Holbein’s 1527 portrait of St. Thomas More in the Frick Collection. Close attention was paid to the details of More’s attire; I especially love the inspired rendering of his headwear. However, what makes this recreation stand out in my mind is how the sitter manages to convey what Holbein conveyed – More’s seriousness and intensity. Returning to Aristotle, the family achieves more than mere mimicry; they are endeavoring to convey the essence of the saint’s personality.
If you are underwhelmed by the intellectual caliber of our contemporary political caste, reading about the life of St. Thomas More will make you despondent. Beginning in 1510, More held a variety of political and diplomatic posts in England and rose to become Lord Chancellor in 1529. He translated ancient texts; wrote histories, religious disputations, spiritual meditations, and philosophical texts – most notably Utopia. He corresponded with many humanists of the age and developed a close friendship with Erasmus of Rotterdam. Unusual for his time, he insisted that his daughters received the same classical education as his son. His daughter Margaret Roper translated Erasmus from Latin into English; her daughter Mary, in turn, translated the ancient historian Eusebius into English. More was famously executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to recognize the king’s authority over the church. He was canonized by the Catholic Church 400 years later and is considered a patron saint of lawyers and politicians. Holbein’s portrait is thus much more than a historical document. It captures the depth of the man’s thought and the strength of his convictions.
The McDaniel family’s recreation of early 16th century portraiture also included Giovanni Bellini’s stunning portrait of the Venetian Doge Leonardo Loredan. The work – housed in the National Gallery, London – is remarkable for the intensity of the sitter’s gaze as well as the elegance of his damask robes. I thought the family did an excellent job of capturing the relationship between the Doge and the viewer. As the ruler of the Serenissima – The Most Serene Republic – The Doge’s eyes do not meet ours; he is above us.
Bellini’s superb portrait does not simply convey the essence of the Doge himself. He is also conveying the glory of the Venetian Republic itself. The stunning ceremonial robe is a testament to the wealth it accumulated through trade; the elegance of the portrait is likewise indicative of Venice’s legacy of artistic patronage. While it was oligarchical rather than democratic, Venice holds the title as the longest lasting Republic in human history – 1100 years until its demise in 1797.
John Singleton Copley’s 1768 portrait of Paul Revere in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is a radically different portrait. In contrast to the Doge’s elegant garments, the famed American silversmith wears a plain linen shirt and a modest waistcoat. Instead of Bellini’s stunning blue backdrop, Copley uses an austere black one. Unlike the Doge, whose eyes do not meet ours, Revere engages the viewer. Rather than conveying grandeur and power, Copley portrays a different sort of dignity – that of a master craftsman holding one of his fine creations. I thought the Shillue family did a superb job recreating the feel of this portrait, capturing not only its austerity, but also how the sitter engages the viewer. It was exceptionally well executed.
Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is not believed to be a portrait of a particular individual; she represents an idealized type. Donning a Turkish turban, sporting an unusually large pearl earning and wearing a fashionable pleated jacket, she appears at home in the upper strata of the 17th century Dutch merchant class. These sartorial details make the painting appealing, but it is her expression that makes the painting so captivating. Is she shy or engaging? Is she sad or playful? What - if anything – is she about to say?
This piece was by far the most popular for the competition. I display four of my favorites – by the O’Brien, the Napolitano, the Leone and the Shillue families.
Recreating the expression of a single sitter is a challenge; recreating the expressions of three, even more so. Two families in our group recreated John Singer Sargent’s “Wyndham Sisters” from the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 1899 painting depicts the three daughters of Sir Percy Wyndham, a wealthy landowner and conservative party politician. I have mixed feelings about Sargent’s work. On one hand, the composition is exceptional. Notice how the sisters’ gazes balance the picture. The central figure looks directly at us; the one on the right looks left, and conversely the one on the left looks right. The color fields are even more boldly balanced – the lower foreground is filled with the whites of the sisters’ dresses, the fabric of the sofa and the petals of the lilies, while the upper background is a lush dark green. As an example of the elegance of the Belle Epoque, the “Wyndham Sisters” is superb. In an Aristotelian sense of capturing the essence of the sitters, however, it seems to fall flatter than some of Sargent’s other female portraits. These Edwardian sisters did in fact live very colorful lives.
That said, my hat goes off to the O’Brien and the Napolitano families for their recreation of their recreation of the Wyndham Sisters. They captured the elegance as well as the compositional balance of this work.
Our group’s survey of portraiture ends with the one family’s brilliant recreation of Picasso’s “Dora Maar Seated” from 1937. With great originality, the inherent incongruity of the portrait was captured. The sitter is cross-eyed to convey Picasso’s disruption of perspective. Her clothing is appropriately variegated, while the both the facial paint and the clothing pay homage to the original’s study of color and form.
In the catalogue to the 1996-1997 exhibition “Picasso and Portraiture,” William Rubin, the Emeritus Director of MOMA wrote: “[Previously] It was assumed that the raison d’etre of a portrait was to communicate the appearance of personality of the sitter. By redefining the portrait as a record of the artist’s personal responses to the subject, Picasso transformed it from a purportedly objective document into a frankly subjective one.”
The implications to this transformation are enormous. Beginning to explore them in this light-hearted essay, however, would itself be incongruous; we can return to the subject another day. Let’s conclude this reflection on portraiture with a thought experiment: if a portrait of me were to be made, how would I want it created? Would I feel comfortable with abstraction, or is part of my identity tied into my physical being? For the religiously minded among us, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? What expression would capture the essence of my being; what accouterments would help convey who I am? A good portrait would reveal much more than our social media profile.
There are a few recreations from our cohort that did not fit into this narrative on portraiture. They can be found here.
Hans Holbein the Younger, "Sir Thomas More", The Frick Collection, New York.
Giovanni Bellini, “Doge Leonardo Loredan”, National Gallery, London.
John Singleton Copley, “Paul Revere”, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Mauritshuis, The Hague.
John Singer Sargent, “The Wyndham Sisters,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Dora Maar,” 1937, Musée Picasso, Paris.