Why a portrait captures a unique kind of beauty
By Ramon E.S. Lerma
It’s so ironic that the artwork you feel the greatest emotional attachment to is the one that, say two generations down the line, your descendants would be left scratching their heads, wondering what to do with it.
I speak, of course, about the portrait—yes, the one showing granny in her terno or, in its more contemporary guise, the one posed for perched languorously on a chaise lounge, swanning ethereally descending a princess staircase, or captured sitting cross legged in jeans and white button-down shirt, collar turned up a la Carolina Herrera.
How often has my advice been sought by bewildered heirs seeking to know if the National Museum would accept their donation of a portrait, more often than not of a lady ancestor, by so-and-so. Trying my darnedest to be tactful, I find myself cycling through the following queries: “Was she part of an event of historic importance?” “Did she invent or win something?” “Was she the ‘first’ or ‘best’ at something of national or international significance?”
“No, but she was beautiful, wasn’t she?,” would be the most frequent response.
Ah, beauty, feminine beauty—the subjectivity of the concept leaves its estimation as open ended as various cultures’ definition of it, let alone its changing standards over the centuries. A simple survey of female portraiture throughout art history takes us from the mascaraed Nefertiti, to the braided, gold-speckled Messalina, to the pale-faced medieval maiden of Petrus Christus, sans makeup and eyebrows, big forehead topped by a veil to cover any ‘sinful’ vestige of hair. The pageant through time continues with Boticelli’s Venus, said to be a Medici bride, thence to the ample curves of Rubens, the rosy-cheeked dames of Gainsborough with their curly tresses, and the silk-spun Belle Epoque beau monde of Sargent.
In all these manifestations, it is this ineffable concept of pulchritude that endures, a virtue held by society which stems from the Ancient Greek idea that “beauty was a blessing (a gift of the gods no less) and that [the] perfect exterior hid an inner perfection. For the Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. They even had a word for it—kaloskagathos—which meant being gorgeous to look at, and hence being a good person.”
Beauty, therefore, when captured in a portrait is not something that is in the process of coming into being, seeking our admiration. It simply is, a fact stated by the artist, no questions asked. “Face-ism” as the historian Bettany Murphy so brilliantly put it. She adds: “In the Greek mind everything had an intrinsic meaning; nothing was pointless. Beauty had a purpose; it was an active, independent reality, not a nebulous quality that only came into being once it was discerned.”
Which brings to mind the ravishing portrait of a woman that I saw recently – one that subtly hearkens to the polished Art Deco portraits of Tamara de Lempicka. It was given to National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz by fellow National Artist Victorio Edades, the painter of the untitled work that I have titled, outwardly for purposes of identification, but verily as a statement of its symbolism, “The Muse.”
It had been exchanged for another circa 1930s work by Edades in Alcuaz’s collection, a portrait of the artist’s wife titled “My Sweetheart,” which somehow had been sold early in Edades’ career, and that the artist pleaded to retrieve, and successfully got back, in the late 1970s. The painting was described by the artist’s biographer Lydia Rivera Ingle as “a beautiful portrait of Jean [Garrott] wearing her mother’s dark red winter coat … Here she sits in a lovely woman’s first bloom, a suggestion of a smile upon her full lips, a slender shoulder delightfully bare where the wrap has dipped. The light catches the delicate bone structure of neck, shoulder and dangling hand. This pose was painted by Edades more than once.”
Edades’ relationship with his American wife is the stuff of legend—he the Seattle-based university art scholar, she the young lass from a liberal white family—a rarity amidst the institutional racism at the time—who moved to the Philippines with her husband after his graduation, and who later became a respected columnist on the English language. It is easy to infer Edades’ deep love and admiration for his wife. Such was his desire to get “My Sweetheart” back that, in his telegram and subsequent letter to Alcuaz, he wrote that he was willing to trade any of his other works for it.
Rendered in the early post-impressionist style of the artist, it is assumed that “The Muse” is the painting for which “My Sweetheart” was exchanged. More than its rarity, superlative quality, and sterling period—qualities for which Alcuaz accepted it as a worthy replacement—it is the indomitable declaration of this portrait as a lasting testament to a devotion so deep and sincere of a husband for his wife, and the empathy contingent upon its owner who wholeheartedly accepted her while letting go of another, that imbues “The Muse” with kaloskagathos.
Therein lies the ultimate measure of the value of a portrait.
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