Here’s Looking at You
I hadn’t planned another visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on this visit, but after standing around for fifteen minutes in front of the Guggenheim, amazed that there wasn’t a line, reading the Hours of Operations sign and thinking what a weird day Thursday was for a museum to be closed, I finally figured out that it was Thursday. The foot traffic there was the polar opposite the next day, but more on that later.
Though the Bronzino exhibit was long gone, the Met had another Renaissance exhibit, of the work of Jan Gossart. It wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the Bronzino, though the historical notes were – Gossart was brought along to Rome in the court of his patron (from my recollection of the exhibit notes, it was Philip of Burgundy; unfortunately all I can find online is that Gossart had a “stay in Rome,” so if I’m wrong, I’m wrong). There he was exposed to the surviving great Classical art that would bring representative art out of the (sorry, but let’s call an auto-da-fe an auto-de-fe) Dark Ages, reviving three dimensionality and the living face and figure.
I spent a long time looking at the bust of Hadrian, who was just about the handsomest man in history, if the sculptor is to be believed. (It was in the collection as it was a gift from the Pope to Gossart’s patron.) At any rate, since the exhibit note card said it was a bust of either Caesar (Julius) or Hadrian, and given the short beard, which was not in fashion in Caesar’s time and which would fit the Hellenic Hadrian, I’m presuming it’s Hadrian. (Pic is hyperlink to the site I cobbled this from, with plenty of other pictures from the exhibit.)
Also I have a hard time thinking of Julius Caesar allowing Himself to be portrayed with a gentle, amused look on his face – definitely more the look a Hellenist would favor. It wasn’t just the man’s handsomeness that struck me as much as it was this “soft” quality, that is so rare in Classical or Renaissance or even modern portraiture – our masters mostly wish to be portrayed in fear- or at least awe-inducingly intimidating poses. Their Power and Seriousness are not to be trifled with! There’s a kindness in the Emperor’s face that makes me think that Antinous was probably a lucky young man.
The other portrait that really stood out for me turns out to be the one the Met is using on its web site to promote the exhibit. There was a whole room full of portraits Gossart did for various nobility and bourgeoisie, most of them staid and stolid, conveying the weight of a man’s or a family’s power in the world. Only this one looked human, though:
As always, reproductions don’t do the original justice. The man is thought to have been a tax collector – the Met, I think, gets it wrong when they say online that “Gossaert captures the man’s cautious frugality without caricature.” I don’t see “frugality,” but I can believe he’s a tax collector – he looks as if he’s listening to a story about why someone can’t pay; he looks as if he’s heard it all before; he’s willing to be polite but unwilling to hide the fact that he’s entertained by people and their ways of lying, dissembling, cheating. He looks like a person of keen intelligence, possessed of some compassion, but with little tolerance for bullshit.
So as my artistic education progresses, I’m seeing what really moves me – Bronzino’s Head of a Young Man, these two pieces – are portraits of people who feel real, who look “modern” in that you can imagine that they might really think and feel like we do, as if they could be alive today. People whose complex feelings are plainly displayed, in short – possibly this is so attractive to me since, as I’ve noted, I’m so reluctant to display my own in my art.