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Category Archives: portraits


Tomorrow I’m going to the Louvre, so please indulge me the cheap rhyme in the title of this post:  April is, after all, National Poetry Month and rest assured, nothing rhymes with “Louvre” in English (it’s now 2:42 a.m. and I’ve been lying in bed trying to think of something).

Today was the much anticipated day to see the Courbet paintings that I’ve been reading about over the past year.  The one that really packed a whollup was Courbet’s self-portrait Man with Leather Belt (pictured above).  This painting is much like the self-portraits of Rembrandt that whisper to you from a quiet space filled with inner light, materializing from darkness to be (quite suddenly) in front of you with tangible fullness and emotion, as if you were alone in a dark room, shining a flashlight onto them one at a time.

Much has been said about this self-portrait, the most interesting comment coming from Michael Fried who observed that the hands in Courbet’s self-portraits are often mirror images of the artist in the act of painting, holding his palette (see the belt) and the paintbrush (the left hand, which reminds me of the hand in Da Vinci’s St. Jean Baptist, but rather than pointing to heaven, the hand of the artist is solidly anchored in the here and now).

Michael Fried aside (gods of Art History, please spare me), what really struck me today was a detail smack in the center of the painting:  the white cuff of the artist’s sleeve.  I is almost as if Courbet literally pressed his sleeve against the wet paint on the canvas.  The rest of the painting has a smooth, academic surface, so this small textural gesture reaches out of the painting (much like Rembrandt’s figures out of the darkness) with the material tangibility of rough cotton or linen.  This little patch of painting breaks through the rest:  it is so physical that it made me want to itch my wrist (or touch the painting, and we know what would happen then in France:  the riot police would be in front of Orsay in five seconds flat).

Speaking of the CRS, the (which makes the Chicago Police look like a bunch of donut-eating sissies), I was a bit worried about interviewing people in French museums, which are more formal than their American counterparts.   For instance, no one (and I mean no one) sits on stairs or fills out school worksheets on the floor like in American museums.  I once observed guards telling visitors in a newly renovated sculpture court in the Louvre not to sit on the cool, inviting marble stairs (there are no benches) about once every ten seconds, thinking that if a smart curator were to observe this she would come to the conclusion that the was a policy problem, since so many people were, quite naturally, committing the same infraction.


In addition to a more formal decorum, there is a rule in French museums regarding who can and can’t “prendre la parole”.  “Prendre la parole” is a fancy way of saying “to speak”.  When I take students to the Musée d’Orsay  in the summer, even if it is a very small group, I have to procure a special badge giving me the right to speak within the public space of the museum.  This special badge indicates that I’m an expert, someone who can dish out the correct version of Art History (capital a, capital h).   This is all strangely wonderful in a country where one can bring one’s pooch to a two or three-star restaurant.

In any case, my fears were unfounded.  The only comment (friendly, in a critical, French sort of way) was from a guard who saw me scrawling in my notebook, Caliban-like, my pencil grip having been passed down to me from a great-great-great-great-great-Neanderthal aunt who never got along with the rest of my Homo-Sapien family.

More about who I interviewed later.  It is 4:19 a.m.  I hope I can get back to sleep.



This is me in the room where we read, where the kids do their homework, and where we put up the Christmas tree.  This is the room where I phoned my dad a year or so before he died:  we were both catheterized, me following an operation for postpartum incontinence and him because the cancer that eventually killed him had taken over his lower body.  We had a laugh about the improbability of us both having tubes coming out of our bladder at the same time, me at forty-two, him at seventy-three.  This is the room where we entertain guests, where we watch birds in the tree right outside the window, and where we listen to the radio.  It’s the most lived-in room in the house; facing south, it is the only room that floods with light during the day.  This is the room where only last week a man climbed through an unlocked window while we were sleeping and helped himself to my computer, an Xbox, games, and two Ipods, which makes me wonder if there are any creative thieves out there, ones who might have prefered my husband’s  old cameras, my cookbooks, or our truncated, travel-weary garden gnome.  No.  Technology.  Always technology.  How predictably boring.

This is me:  pint-sized, a pointy chin, thin lips, blue eyes, and a hair-mop made up of three different colors.  I’m wearing a sweater I knitted, my sloppy slippers lined with sheep’s wool, and black toenail polish (which makes me look a bit more hard ass than I am).  The artist (more about her later) painted two portraits of me.  In one I am featured more prominently, the room figures less.  I prefer the composition of this one:  I am in the center, I anchor the painting, but at the same time I’m a bit dwarfed by it all, the room isn’t mine as much as I am a part of it, which is the way a home, a real home, fits around its dwellers; it not only encases them but slowly penetrates them, imposing itself in between their fingers and toes, fusing the space between them and their things (I’m recalling how my daughter cried when she saw a decrepit, old bathroom cabinet we had replaced out in the alley; it was as if we had pulled out some of her teeth to give away to the shamanic junk collectors who make their rounds in the alleys of our neighborhood).  I also love the scale of the painting:  the leaves of the plant are bigger than my head, the dictionary takes up a big space on the rug – just the kind of metaphorical space it embodies in our house where we play Scrabble, Boggle, and are challenged by new words.  What is pralltriller?  Look it up! Finally, the wall is a tricolor reverie in the hands of the painter:  reflections of the chair, my sweater, and my eyes cast vibrant shadows onto the wall that is, in reality, a monotonous grey.

I picked this painting up today from Emily Rapport’s house.  Emily Rapport is a Chicago-based artist with hot pink hair and a shy, friendly smile. Emily has a distinctive style,  rooted in the gritty working class Chicago of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren.   Her colors and composition style remind me of Edward Hopper, though the series she did in the Chicago Northside bar Delilah’s harkens back to the sordid tenderness Lautrec painted with in the bars and cabarats of Montmartre.  I called Emily in February to commission this portrait.  I wanted to enter the painting process from the back screen door (certainly not through an unlocked window!), experience what others had felt under the gaze of an artist, and engage in a dialogue with a painter about their side of the experience; the working side of painting.

So, what was it like?  First of all, there is the strangeness, the awkwardness, of looking at the painter.  Unlike normal social exchanges where looking at someone means recognition and communication (of a sort), the painter looks at you but does not return your gaze.  The gaze is the detached gaze of the scientist, analyzing the face like a staph culture, deciding which details to focus on and which to pass over.  For the painter, the mouth is no more sacred than a slipper or the leg of a chair.  Indeed, spending too much time on a face out of a desire for photographic precision can lead the artist to over-paint, a problematic temptation Emily Rapport describes on her blog:  “Faces can always be difficult.  We tend to pay too much attention to the details in an effort to get the recognizable person ‘right’ and lose the impression of the whole face.”

Secondly, there is the unexpected physicality of painting.  I had envisioned the sitting as a hushed ceremony with the sable brushes gliding silently on the canvas.  Wrong.  Tools scrape, instruments rasp, and tubes squelch.  To paint is to work; the technical side is as much about a gardener raking soil and gravel as it is about the fine artist (an image inherited from the Romantics) dabbing the canvas with color in a transe-like state of genuis.   One wonders if Courbet, while painting The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), didn’t see himself in the men breaking stones into so many different sizes, combing the ground with dusty fingernails, and dropping their work into an iron pail, marked by countless mishaps and travails?


Indeed, the tactility of paint, the imprint of the artist, and the gesture of work involved in the process are all key elements that distinguish the photo of a person from the painted portrait.   Unlike a mechanical reproduction where the image is captured by light hitting a chemically treated surface or by a sensor that digitalizes light waves, the painted image is set down on the surface through the painting act of a person, an act that includes her movements, concentration, hope, frustration, and will.    That each brushstroke is a deliberate choice of the painter as opposed to a reflection of light or the arrangement of pixels; that these brushstrokes coalesce to give an image, is nothing short of a miracle; the everyday miracle of creation.*

Now, there is the problem of where to hang my portrait.  Certainly not in the reading room where it was painted:  settling into the very chair where I was painted with the portrait looming above would be a bit like the nightmarish funhouse scene in The Lady from Shanghai.  I suggested putting it in the room where we watch t.v., but my son was creeped out by the image of my unblinking stare forever looking out onto the spectacle (as if I don’t already given him and his sister enough shit for watching t.v.).  It might just end up in the narrow, dark red corridor leading into my bedroom, in between the framed posters of other women:  Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat and  Young Girl with a Flute, as well as the painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters (which aforementioned son, then only four, made me buy in the Louvre, so delighted was he by a painting in a museum where one woman tweeks another one’s nipple).

It might not end up in a veritable room for the time being, but at least I’ll be in good company.


*The word “miracle” has the caché of a Hallmark card today.   Writers concerned with aesthetics (among them Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just) have pointed to our post-modern discomfort with talking about or even using the word “beauty”; the word “miracle” has, in my mind, succumbed to the same problematic.  A writer can’t use the word “miracle” without conjuring up images of puppies (“the miracle of birth”).

And yet.  If one hasn’t stood in front of a painting long enough to be baffled (and entranced) by a brush stroke that can yield a likeness and at the same time something fuller than a likeness (because not mechanical), then one hasn’t spent enough time in front of a single painting.   The last time this happened to me was in front of Fantin Latour’s painting Still Life:  Corner of a Table while looking at the sugar bowl.

So, I do mean “miracle” when I say it; that is how I regard the fuller-than-a-likeness phenomenon that painting yields for those with the time and intention to look.


This is what we know about her: she lived in Egypt, probably in the Fayoum region, though she may have lived in Antinooupolis, Memphis, or Thebes. She spoke Egyptian and possibly Greek as a second language. She was alive in the second century of the Common Era. Apart from her beauty and apparent wealth (the earrings, the necklace), we know nothing else about her except that when she posed for this portrait she did so knowing that it would one day serve as her passport to the afterlife.

Fayoum portraits, named after the Fayoum region in Egypt, are the oldest known portraits. They are a curious hybrid: the portrait, which represents the individuality of the sitter, is anchored in the Greco-Roman tradition. This frontal, realistic portrait (as opposed to the profile view of older Egyptian portraits) was then bandaged onto the head of the mummy as its face, a bit like a Greco-Roman postage stamp on an Egyptian body being sent on its way. As both John Berger and Jean-Christophe Bailly have pointed out, the fact that these portraits were destined for the afterlife imparts to them a certain poignancy: they look at us and at the same time they face their own mortality. They look into the face of death head on.

Gazing at the young woman in our Fayoum portrait gives me an irrepressible urge to sit down with her, have a cup of tea, or maybe invite her for dinner. This drive some of us have to discover and reach out to the other makes me think of a neighbor who invites foreign university students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. At first it is a very solemn affair: they sit down with their different faces, languages, and customs to eat this strange, large bird on a platter. They are:  Yemenis, Bosnians, Italians, Indonesians; it changes every year. Gradually there is some pointing and gesticulating, then come the strange faces as the gamey taste of turkey is experienced, and eventually stories are told; there is laughter, there are smiles.

In much the same way that my neighbor brings together for an evening meal disparate parts of the world, painters through portraiture have invited the faces of the past to our table; their existence in our world defies the sitter’s own historicity; they are with us. In On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress Walter Benjamin describes this about the work of the historian:

At any given time, the living see themselves in the midday of history. They are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table.

And the painter?


I am indebted to Jean-Christophe Bailly’s incisive book on the Fayoum portraits: L’Apostrophe Muette (unfortunately not translated into English). The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Fayoum portraits; it is possible that there are some nice publications available there. I am planning on going there in May to see them.

Walter Benjamin is quoted from the work called The Arcade Project, posthumously published by the Harvard University Press. The book is divided into what Benjamin called convolutes and On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress is convolute N.


I recently finished a book by Michel Butor called Histoire Extraordinaire; an essay on a dream of Baudelaire. It begins with a dream that Baudelaire recorded at five o’clock in the morning, when it was nice and warm, for his friend Charles Asselineau. (I love the idea of calling a dream nice and warm; it makes me think of a croissant in the morning.) Butor then takes up threads of the dream and with them illuminates much of Baudelaire’s writing, including the translations he did of Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Stories.

While reading the book I was reminded of one of my favorite prose poems by Baudelaire, called Crowds. Baudelaire is surely one of the first, if not the first, to write of the essentially modern, urban experience of solitude in crowds. What struck me this time when I reread the poem was that it echoes the comments of people I’ve interviewed when they have talked about portraits. Here is paragraph three of Crowds:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or some one else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go by looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The whole idea has a vampire quality to it: I love the image of people, wandering souls, walking past portraits in a museum, only to stop in front of one and feel as if they are entering into the life, if only for a moment, of someone else. I recall Erin’s comment when she was in front of the Mona Lisa: she felt as if she had reached across time and experienced someone else’s life.

Doesn’t this mean that we are all become poets in a certain sense when we enter a museum? Or, do we become image-gobbling vampires? Maybe we become both, for the act of observing a painting is one, an act of consumption and two, an act of creation; we create our own experience with a painting. John Dewey, an experience-vampire if there ever was one, speaks of this moment (act) in these terms:

The esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. […] Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have to first plunge into it.

After we plunge into the painting (or suck out its blood), we digest it and this digestion constitutes the creation of a unique experience for every person, poet, or vampire.

Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Here’s paragraph three in the original: Le poëte jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.


This morning I listened to Terry Gross’ interviews with John Updike and since I’ve been mulling over the nature of portraits and what draws us to them, I was struck by this comment he made about faces:

“The whole idea of a face is slightly funny, isn’t it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment these faces we carry around with the holes in them, the shiny holes and the dark holes and the one which shows a lot of teeth, it’s all odd beyond belief, really.”

This quote, which is so on the mark, makes me think of what happens when you look at a face upside down for awhile, how it begins to look creepy because it is at the same time so familiar and yet so different from what you’re used to: the holes are all there, but they are in the wrong places. If you haven’t experienced this (a sad comment on your childhood) you should try it: have someone lay down on their back with their head hanging over the edge, then stare at it and enjoy!

There’s no question about it – I’m a “people person”. How else could I spend my days in a museum approaching total strangers and engaging them in conversation? So, when I walk through a gallery I’m most often struck by paintings that look back at me, that is to say, by portraits.

What makes a portrait a portrait? This sounds like a “duh” question, I know, and the “duh” answer would be “a painting where a person is the focus,” right? What happens, then, when the person has their back turned to us? Is this still a portrait? The luminous painting Betty by Gerhard Richter poses this question. In the same way, how do we categorize a painting where the person is facing the viewer, but is blindfolded? Isn’t that what is so unsettling about certain paintings by Magritte (I’m thinking of The Lovers and the iconic Son of Man)? By covering the face in the first painting and by simply occluding the eyes in the second, Magritte challenges the very notion of portraiture.


To my view, there are two basic elements essential to the portrait. One, the subject faces us (not necessarily straight-on, but the face must be visible). Two, we must be able to see the gaze (or lack thereof; a portrait of a blind person is still a portrait). One could go so far as to say that since the act of consuming a painting or of consummating its existence is effectuated through the eyes, through vision, that portraits are a modis operandi for the visitor, a sort of visual demonstration of what one should do while at the museum.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my predilection for portraits: roughly sixty percent of the people I’ve interviewed at the Art Institute say they prefer them. Why? Erin from Ohio said that portraits make her feel as if she could “reach across time and experience someone else’s life”. Robert from Minnesota is drawn to portraits for the same reasons that he prefers reading biographies: he likes to “connect with people and understand what their life is like”. Brooke, a student from Northern Illinois University, put into words a simple and altogether naïve experience that I also have in front of portraits (but am too embarrassed or snobbish to say it): she looks at the painting and sees at the same time its subject and a person who really existed; someone who might have been a friend. Indeed, every time I walk by Charles-Antione Coypel’s Portrait of Philippe Coypel and His Wife I feel as if they are beckoning me inside their 18th century apartment to talk about liberty, equality, and fraternity (over a glass of Veuve Cliquot, bien sûr).


This brings us to perhaps the most compelling of all reasons for the power of portraits: as much as we would like to share some bubbly with the Coypels, they are long gone. Indeed, in portraits we stare at our own mortality: the paintings are there, immortal and static and we are outside of them, human and dynamic. This is why Rembrandt’s self-portraits are so moving: the process of changing, of aging, and of anticipating death finds itself depicted in painting; the permanence of the person is challenged before our eyes; Rembrandt crosses over to our side of time.

Additional thoughts:

When looking at Betty, think about Watteau and his profils perdus

The Fayum portraits also mix up questions of temporality and immortality: painted while the person was living, their sole use was for burial (we were not meant to see them). Surely the fact that one’s likeness will remain after death has crossed the minds of many people who have sat for portraits, but these people were actually preparing for their death by posing.

Finally (hang in there, dear reader), I wonder if our predisposition for searching out a face sometimes leads us to find them in unpredictable places. For instance, the Boo Radley type standing behind Gabrielle in Rêverie or Portrait of Gabrielle, the eye (some see a face) staring out from a bush in Gauguin’s Arlésiennes, and the faces in some of Courbet’s landscapes, usually in rock formations, which gives the Latin word for face, facies, even more of a punch when one considers that in geology a facies is a part of the rock that stands out, that looks different, from the rest.


Drats! Blasted 19th century infant mortality! Yesterday, I went back to the Ryerson library to finish reading Roger Bonniot’s Gustave Courbet en Saintonge in the hopes of finding some clues about Gabrielle’s descendants. The news was sobering. Let’s start out with her mother, Laure. She had five children: Louise Corinne, Louise Laure, Gabrielle (not my Gabrielle, I’m getting there soon), Jules Ernest, and Jules Lucien. Three out of the five died before their second birthday. It turns out that my Gabrielle is actually Louise number two (her full name was Louise Laure Zoïde Borreau). Her parents nicknamed her after her sister Gabrielle who died shortly after she was born, a bit like Van Gogh’s parents did Van Gogh. That wasn’t a happy ending either, now was it?

The Borreaus moved to Paris from the Saintonge region in 1870. Monsieur Borreau set up a toy workshop in their apartment. Laure and her daughter Gabrielle visited Courbet often during his stay at the prison Sainte-Pélagie (where he was for his role in the Commune). It is possible that we have one more painting of Gabrielle Bourreau – Courbet painted Head of Woman and Flowers while in prison and some scholars have suggested that it is Gabrielle. For those who don’t find Rêverie as bewitching as me, don’t even click to see Head of Woman and Flowers. It is a dreamlike, if not disturbing painting (signaling the work of Odilon Redon and the Nabis): neither face nor bouquet look entirely finished and we see them as if through a filter that distorts images, much in the same way that those mirrors do at carnivals (or the “bulge”, “dent”, “twirl” and “stretch” features in Photo Booth which transform any normal person into Elephant Man).

During one visit at Sainte-Pélagie, Courbet gave Gabrielle a painting of flowers that she hung onto all her life, in the end donating (anonymously) to the French government. Gabrielle took over the family business in 1882 and won honorable mention at the 1889 Universal Exposition for her handmade dolls. In 1882 she married widower Thomas Breban and they had two children, Laure who died at four and Jules who died at six. Gabrielle’s remaining brother (Jules Lucien) died in 1902 and was followed to the grave three years later by his only son, aged fifteen. Gabrielle herself died in 1918, four years after her husband. She made it long enough to see World War I and the advent of trench warfare. Joy. Her son-in-law (her husband’s son from his first marriage) described her as “thin, lonely, and full of melancholy”. Gee, I wonder why?

The whole story begged for a dead baby joke, but I was in no mood to think of one yesterday in the Ryerson Library. Not a single Borreau remains. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I had already purchased my ticket and was ready to sleuth through Paris to find Gabrielle’s descendants. Now what was I going to do? Luckily I have a friend whose strength is bringing me back to reality. She reminded me that there are museums, great food, and lots of wine in Paris and that just because I wouldn’t find some dead person’s relatives didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have a good time. Touché.

Amidst all the dead babies, adultery, and prison there is at least some sunny news! Yesterday in gallery 222, brandished with my new questionnaire on Rêverie (Portrait de Gabrielle Borreau), I interviewed an older couple about the painting. They spent at least five minutes staring at it and coming up with responses. When they came over and joined me on the bench, a whole other group of people quickly went to look at the painting (what were they missing?). I looked out of the corner of my eye and smiled. Gabrielle is on her way, albeit posthumously, to stardom.

Postscriptum: I’m seeing her face all over Chicago now. If you live here and are on the North Side, check out the H & M billboard at Belmont and Sheffield, the girl to the very left.

The other day when I wrote about Young Woman at an Open Half-Door I left out one of the main reasons this painting attracts me: the asymmetric face of its subject. In fact, I got to thinking about the portraits I like in the Art Institute and realized that at least two others have asymmetrical features: Rêverie (Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau) by Gustave Courbet and Alessandro de’ Medeci by Jacobo Carucci. Gabrielle is what one might call “belle laide” in French: her unusual features, bordering on unattractive, are what constitute her beauty. Alessandro looks as if he broke his nose in a brawl; the coarseness of his face combined with the softness of the painting make the young Medeci indescribably sexy.

My penchant for unbalanced faces made me wonder if people in general find them more attractive, so I did some research (read: went on-line) and found that I’m a weirdo: perfection is preferred to imperfection (duh). Symmetric faces are perceived as more honest, more desirable, prettier, and healthier. One crackpot study even said that people with symmetric faces had orgasms more often! Doesn’t Jean-Paul Sartre’s face combined with his endless womanizing effectively put the kabosh on that theory? I found blogs for people with asymmetrical faces. The posts of the symmetry-challenged are particularly poignant in that many of them say that no one else notices their “defect” and yet they hate their face; many are considering plastic surgery.

However, it turns out that the truly symmetric face does not exist. The term chimeric face refers to a computer-generated mug of perfect harmony. The concept is simple: a photo is divided down the midline, the left or right of the face is copied, and then the two identical sides are combined to make a totally symmetric face. They are unsettling to look at, if not downright creepy. Certainly there are faces in paintings that look almost perfect and there are people (usually women) who look so good you want to eat them: William Adolphe Bouguereau’s ladies were described as if they were made out of whipped cream. Nevertheless, the practice of painting gives us (thank goodness) plenty of portraits celebrating imperfection. This is in part explained by the very nature of portraiture and painting. John Berger has pointed out that the closest we get to putting our best face forward is unfortunately in the bathroom when we look at the mirror: we automatically adjust our face in order to see ourselves as we wish to be seen. When a painter paints, the subject is disarmed, he is without this corrective prop: he is painted not as he sees himself but as how he appears to others.

Finally, the act of painting is an act in time: the painter begins, continues, corrects (unless he is an impressionist and even they cheated!), and then, with any luck, finishes. The moment of painting one eye is unique from that of painting the other; one nostril is separated from the other not only by the columella but by brush strokes and time. Seen in this way it is logically impossible for a right eye to be an exact copy of the left (this impossibility in painting is not present in photography where the image of the sitter is mechanically and instantaneously reproduced).

We are indebted to portraits that show perfection in imperfection. Indeed, they provide a great antidote to our world of Photoshop, airbrushing, Tom Cruise, and those cute little Manga faces. Maybe the craniofacial asymmetric bloggers could benefit from a visit to their local museum before they undergo plastic surgery?

John Berger: “A Cloth Over the Mirror” in The Shape of a Pocket

I’ve been wandering through the rooms of European painting for almost two weeks now. I’ve talked to some interesting people, watched visitors (are they alone or in groups? spending time in front of a painting or walking by them as if they were in an aisle at Trader Joes?), and have had guards watching me, particularly in room 225, where my protracted visits and notetaking probably make me look as if I’m preparing a heist. A museum is, of course, “peopled” with people. Among them are visitors, custodians, docents, and guards. Then, there are the silent ones, the painted ones: the portraits.

This brings me back to room 225 and to a portrait called Young Woman at an Open Half-Door, painted by someone from Rembrandt’s workshop. The colors are typical of Rembrandt and his students: the overall composition is dark and the subject seems to slowly come out of the darkness as if by magic to greet you with quiet luminosity and graciousness. Do these subjects fade back into darkness after the museum closes? One would have to get locked into the museum (or carry out a heist!) to find out.

If you stare long enough at this painting your eyes become adjusted to the dark and inevitably end up on the young woman’s necklace. My guess is that the beads are carnelian – they are too warm to be garnets. Like many paintings, the color that arrests your gaze is echoed throughout other parts of the painting, spreading outward like ripples in a pond. In this painting, the same red is found on part of her sleeve, part of the door, and on her lips.

The necklace might have become the focal point for the painting had it not been for the young woman’s face. She is looking away from us, but not in a coy or shy way. It is as if she has just opened the top part of the door and has seen something suspicious that she wants us to see; she is showing us with her gaze. Is it a boy who has just stolen some milk? an old man bothering a young girl? or is it outside of the painting? a visitor on his cell phone? someone chewing gum? the flash of a camera? In many portraits there are the politics of voyeurism, but in this portrait her gaze makes me a partner in her vision game.

Finally, the painting, like many great works of art, is mysterious. We aren’t sure who she is, nor do we know who painted her or what she is looking at. On top of that, by dint of my scholarly research, I have located an odd appearance of this painting in the 1960s television series Bewitched. It seems that Young Woman at an Open Half Door strangely showed up in the living room of Derrin and Samantha! I may be one of the first to have discovered this part of the painting’s travels from Rembrandt’s workshop to the Art Institute in Chicago. In that case, maybe the young woman is trying to warn Samantha about the impending visit of her overbearing mother Endora!

For a chance to see the painting, click here or, better yet, visit room 225 at the Art Institute of Chicago.