Saturday, August 20, 2016

Americans and Venetians

A while ago, in Yeats's Autobiographies, I noticed the passage
In the Dublin National Gallery there hung, perhaps there still hang, upon the same wall, a portrait of some Venetian gentleman by Strozzi, and Mr. Sargent's painting of President Wilson. Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body; it feeds upon it as the flame feeds upon the candle--and should that thought be changed, his pose would change, his very cloak would rustle, for his whole body thinks. President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of the body, nor any movement but that of the valet, who has brushed and folded in mechanical routine. There all was an energy flowing outward from nature itself; here all is the anxious study and slight deflection of external force; there man's mind and body were predominantly subjective; here all is objective, using those words not as philosophy uses them, but as we use them in conversation.
 (The Trembling of the Veil, The Tragic Generation, section III)

That called to mind a passage remembered from John Jay Chapman:
In looking at the eighteenth century portraits of Puritan Elders, I have often reflected that the Puritans were traders. Whatever they may have been when they first landed, they soon became keen-eyed and practical, hard and cold. Their resemblance to the old Venetian merchants may be traced in the Doge's Palace, where the cold, Yankee faces loom down familiarly on the shuddering American tourist. I could attach to almost every portrait in Venice an honored Puritan name; and, with a little study and reflection, I could tell how each pictured aristocrat must have made his money.
(The essay "Mr. Brimmer",  published in Memories and Milestones.)

Well, each gets what he looks for, when he looks for it. Chapman wrote mostly on culture and politics broadly considered. He had a good eye for art, but "Mr. Brimmer" is about a bygone period of Boston society. Yeats may not have considered that Wilson was not then a young man, particularly by the standards of 1917. Giovanni Battista Brignole (and I suspect he was Genoese, not Venetian) has a receding hairline in Strozzi's portrait; still, he has the look of a man in vigorous middle age.

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