A new exhibition has filled Firestone Library's main gallery with 100 portraits of poets, novelists and essayists, pulled from the holdings of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
Titled "The Author's Portrait: 'O, Could He But Have Drawne His Wit,'" the exhibition showcases paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, marble sculptures and plaster death masks dating from 1489 to 1989. Among the writers featured are William Shakespeare (about whom the quote in the exhibition's title was written by contemporary Ben Jonson), Virgil, Mark Twain, George Sand and Sojourner Truth. Artists whose work is on view include William Blake, Constantin Brancusi, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Willem de Passe and Auguste Rodin.
Many of the portraits stem from friendships that were formed or flourished over long afternoons of conversation between artist and sitter, such as Édouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire, William Hogarth and Henry Fielding, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther, and Ilia Efimovich Repin and Leo Tolstoy. Animosities also developed, such as that between the artist William Marshall and the poet John Milton, who famously told his readers (writing in Greek so the artist could not understand) to "laugh at the botching artist's mis-attempt." Charles Dickens had Daniel Maclise throw out all his early sketches and begin again from scratch. Goethe finally refused to pose ever again, complaining that artists had "tortured and plagued him" long enough.
An annotated checklist of the exhibition, illustrated with 50 of the portraits, has been published with an introductory essay by Thomas Hare, Princeton's William Sauter LaPorte '28 Professor in Regional Studies and professor of comparative literature. The full-color publication is available for sale in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
"To some great critics of painting, the portrait doesn't only tell us something important about the sitter or subject of the portrait, but actually makes him (it is far more often 'him' than 'her') present to us, erasing the constraints of time and place to integrate into our present experience someone who is gone," Hare wrote. "They might even go so far as to say that in exemplary cases the portrait goes beyond presence itself to reveal a core of character that the sitter may well have preferred to conceal.
"Another reading of the portrait, however, sees it as a conspiracy between sitter and artist aimed at seducing the viewer into believing a strategic fiction. In this reading, the portrait is a public-relations tool intended to give viewers a particular impression of a sitter for reasons known to the sitter and the artist, but likely concealed from us viewers. ... It is our good fortune to find, in this exhibition, evidence upon which to make our own judgments about the relative virtues of portraiture and poetry."
The exhibition runs through July 5 and is on view from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. weekends.