Some months ago I did a couple of posts on portraiture, inspired by a new book by the philosopher Cynthia Freeland. Last evening I read an article about the portraits of the painter Lucian Freud, which made me think about this subject again. The author of the article, Ian Marcus Corbin, writing in the current issue of First Things, traces the "gruesome sort of candor" of Freud's style to the 19th-century French realist Gustave Courbet. A major difference between the portraits by Courbet and those by Freud is that the latter's subjects generally have their eyes closed. These closed eyes refuse to reveal the inner life of their subject, and indeed that may be Freud's point. The article is entitled "The Heavy Eyelids of Lucian Freud."
Corbin stresses Freud's relentless focus on the physical, biological body. And, while Freud was "in theory at least, deeply committed to capturing the flesh of his subjects, where flesh meets consciousness, he stepped lightly, if at all." Corbin traces this approach to Freud's profound anti-metaphysical attitudes, which the artist shared with many of his contemporaries. Thus, he is "commended for his courageous willingness to look grim reality, again and again, in the cheeck, navel, and nipple. His mature work is a modern memento more, a hard-eyed stare at the way of all flesh."
I have never cared for Freud's work and quickly passed by the recent homage now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His attitude toward his subjects was too unsparing for me, as if they were being attacked by the very brushwork Freud wielded. But, to return to portraits and especially to Freeman's ruminations in her book: we are drawn to portraits because of what they reveal of the person. As Corbin writes, Freud failed to answer the question: what is the particular point of painting humans? His decision to paint his subjects with their eyes closed was "philosophically weighty, because, for a portraitist, the eyes are not just one organ among many. They are where the psyche, or soul, can seem most visible." Ultimately, Corbin gives Freud credit for avoiding a "homogenized fantasy world," even if his work is plagued by the "postmodern taste for what Saul Bellow called 'the harshest or most niggardly explanation' of human phenomena."
In describing Goethe, his contemporaries frequently alluded to his eyes. His fellow student Heinrich Stilling in Strassburg, in 1771, spoke of Goethe as an excellent man with "big bright eyes, splendid forehead and fine build" who, moreover, dominated the company he was in. (By the way, Stilling's autobiographical novel, Heinrich Stillings Leben, is a precious and revealing document of this period.) Heinrich Christian Boie, who met Goethe in Frankfurt in 1774, spoke of "a heart as great and noble as his mind," and of the intelligence revealed by his "bright brown eyes." In Karlsbad in 1785 Goethe was said to stand out at the spa because of his beautiful eyes.
Picture credit: Art History Archive; Recherche