Pretty As A Picture


During my last miserable year of grad school, I found occasion to court the woman who had, in my last year as an undergrad, taught the German class I took as an elective. Though she’d lived most of her life in the Valley, she looked the part of Biergarten waitress, at least judging by how beer advertisements depict such people. Blonde, with a complexion Russians call “blood and milk, she was also slightly zaftig. To switch countries once again, if you can picture Blair from Facts of Life, say, in the third or fourth season, you’ve about got her.

Paying effective compliments requires a sense of timing. I forget exactly when I decided the right time had come — probably toward the end of our first date. But the compliment I can remember: I told her, “You look like Renoir’s ‘Nymph of the Sands.’” She can’t have known what painting I had in mind, since its actual title, as I later learned, is “Blonde Bather.” But because she sensed it was a good thing, or possibly because she was sick to death of being compared to Blair from Facts of Life, the flattering comparison did what it was supposed to do.

Searching great works of art for resemblance to actual people is probably a terrible way to approach them, but it’s a habit I got into right about at that time. I blame Carol Gerten, whose Fine Arts Site had gone up a year earlier. Housing thousands of paintings by artists from Edwin Austin Abbey to Francisco de Zubaran, it seems calculated to feed any addiction.

Like most unhealthy habits, the game of who-does-this-painting-look-like is fun. People who look like paintings rarely look like paintings of people like themselves. Small wonder, since so many artists have taken their subjects from the Bible or Greek mythology. Thus, a grad school colleague, whom I do not remember to have been a particularly talented dancer, shows up on canvas as Georges Regnault’s Salome.

An historian I used to know bears an almost freakish resemblance to Carvaggio’s Judith. It has to be said, though, that the historian, despite a general bookishness, was extraordinarily comfortable with blood and death. While excavating the family crypt of one of her subjects, she spent some minutes reverently cradling a tibia that had fallen to the floor from a burst casket. The beheader of Holofernes would have approved.

A Facebook friend of mine is a dead ringer for Jane Morris, which , thanks to the yeoman’s service Jane rendered Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, also makes her a dead ringer for Guinevere and Proserpina. In actual fact, she’s a Wisconsin native, a mother of three, and a Southern Baptist. Prosaic though her background might sound, this background sets her quite a few notches above young Jane, who was born to a stableman. Perhaps my imagination suffers from some gross defect, but I find I like people better once I’ve seen them transfigured.

Sometimes seeing the transfiguration leads to a deeper kind of seeing. My Russian professor was a man in his early seventies who’d served 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He drilled us, literally, in the rules of the language, making us stand to attention as we declined nouns of varying gender and number, along with their accompanying adjectives.

It worked; Russian grammar has become a matter of muscle memory — a kind of Manual of Arms for the tongue and brain. To this day, I remember that the instrumental of dver’, or door, is dver’yu; and the instrumental of dveri, or doors, dveryami. But at the time, good grief, he drove me nuts. He had a cutting wit, and gave himself license to dress up his lectures with a running commentary on the state of the world, which was always bad and getting worse. It was all I could do to restrain myself from kicking him right in the genitive case.

Years later, when I first laid eyes on Anton Graff’s portrait of Frederick the Great, I saw him: the jowls, the haunted (and haunting) blue eyes, the mouth held resolutely firm as if containing a barbed epigram. The likeness explained my old professor to me with a logic my mind had never been able to acquire on its own. During his own hitch in the service, Fritz was known to thrash orderlies with canes, and execute junior officers for writing letters after “Taps.” If anything, my class had gotten off lucky.

So I’m curious: Have you readers ever seen yourselves in a painting? Anyone else?

  • Sarah the Sede

    There was a picture of Our Lady of Sorrow’s in my 8th grade classroom that looked like Nicholas Cage in a veil.

    I’ve never seen myself in a painting, though I wish I did. That would be fun.

  • jkm

    As children, my sister and I were frequently made to stand in front of George Romney’s portrait of the Beckwith sisters at the Huntington, as visitors remarked at the resemblance. (My sister was the one in the mob cap.) I still think of it as a family photo, though we were the working class daughters of a chemical plant shop steward, not the spoiled heiresses of a West Indies sugar planter. Hundreds of years later, I came face to face with myself last summer in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s Cumaean sibyl come to by-no-means-pretty-but-imposing-and-eternal life. In between, I met my BFF, and recognized her as Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, who had been looking out a window over my uncle’s mantelpiece all my life.

  • jkm

    As children, my sister and I were frequently made to stand in front of George Romney’s portrait of the Beckwith sisters at the Huntington, as visitors remarked at the resemblance. (My sister was the one in the mob cap.) I still think of it as a family photo, though we were the working class daughters of a chemical plant shop steward, not the spoiled heiresses of a West Indies sugar planter. Hundreds of years later, I came face to face with myself last summer in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s Cumaean sibyl come to by-no-means-pretty-but-imposing-and-eternal life. In between, I met my BFF, and recognized her as Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, who had been looking out a window over my uncle’s mantelpiece all my life.

  • http://thatsadancerslegmargaret.wordpress.com/ Bernadette

    I’ve been told that I look like Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife. Unfortunately, while I can see the resemblance, it didn’t quite come across as the compliment that I think my friend intended. I don’t think Saskia is particularly pretty!

  • http://thatsadancerslegmargaret.wordpress.com/ Bernadette

    I’ve been told that I look like Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife. Unfortunately, while I can see the resemblance, it didn’t quite come across as the compliment that I think my friend intended. I don’t think Saskia is particularly pretty!

  • Pearty

    Was going through the Church Fathers with my 8th Graders and when we got to St Ambrose, one kid piped up and said “It looks like you sir!”

    I hadn’t had a shave for a few days, which helped.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_7fbJSBIFG0Q/STuRWxuEVNI/AAAAAAAAARc/biGbcxVywOQ/s400/SantAmbrogio_MosaicoSacello.jpg

  • Pearty

    Was going through the Church Fathers with my 8th Graders and when we got to St Ambrose, one kid piped up and said “It looks like you sir!”

    I hadn’t had a shave for a few days, which helped.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_7fbJSBIFG0Q/STuRWxuEVNI/AAAAAAAAARc/biGbcxVywOQ/s400/SantAmbrogio_MosaicoSacello.jpg

  • Anonymous

    I like this — sadly, I find I always look like the poor guttersnipes in the sad French paintings!

  • MeanLizzie

    I like this — sadly, I find I always look like the poor guttersnipes in the sad French paintings!

  • Anonymous

    Sarah: If I notice anything, I won’t keep it a secret.

    Bernadette and jkm:You’re both way too hard on yourselves. the Sybil and Mevrou van Uylenburgh are a couple of swell-lookin’ tomatoes — with very euphonious names. (Well, “Saskia” is euphonious; “Mevrou van Uylenburgh,” not so much.)

    Pearty: Ambrose must have been regarded as a very sharp-looking cat, or else St. Ignatius of Loyola wouldn’t have stolen his look.

    As for me, when I was younger — around the time I was involved with the Blonde Bather — I thought I decided a bit like Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Colonel Tarleton. (Bear in mind, this was during my fitness-freak days, when I cycled twenty miles per day and ran six, still managing to smoke two packs.) What I hadn’t counted on was the degree to which Reynolds flattered his subjects. Much later, I saw a sketch of Tarleton that had been made from another angle, and learned, to my horror, that the man’s nose could have survived a Mexican standoff with De Gaulle’s, the Duke of Wellington’s, and Ven. Pope Pius XII’s.

  • lindenman

    Sarah: If I notice anything, I won’t keep it a secret.

    Bernadette and jkm:You’re both way too hard on yourselves. the Sybil and Mevrou van Uylenburgh are a couple of swell-lookin’ tomatoes — with very euphonious names. (Well, “Saskia” is euphonious; “Mevrou van Uylenburgh,” not so much.)

    Pearty: Ambrose must have been regarded as a very sharp-looking cat, or else St. Ignatius of Loyola wouldn’t have stolen his look.

    As for me, when I was younger — around the time I was involved with the Blonde Bather — I thought I decided a bit like Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Colonel Tarleton. (Bear in mind, this was during my fitness-freak days, when I cycled twenty miles per day and ran six, still managing to smoke two packs.) What I hadn’t counted on was the degree to which Reynolds flattered his subjects. Much later, I saw a sketch of Tarleton that had been made from another angle, and learned, to my horror, that the man’s nose could have survived a Mexican standoff with De Gaulle’s, the Duke of Wellington’s, and Ven. Pope Pius XII’s.

  • Guest

    I’m told I look a lot like Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (http://jssgallery.org/Paintings/Lady_Agnew.htm). Too bad I don’t get to lounge around in lovely silk chiffon dresses all day, sigh….

  • Guest

    I’m told I look a lot like Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (http://jssgallery.org/Paintings/Lady_Agnew.htm). Too bad I don’t get to lounge around in lovely silk chiffon dresses all day, sigh….

  • Anonymous

    I hear ya.

  • lindenman

    I hear ya.

  • jkm

    Oh, there are tomato sybils. Poor Cumae, however, is not among them. Michelangelo makes her sexless, heavy-limbed, and vastly aged–though the legend goes that she diminished in stature over her 1,000-year lifespan, ending as nothing but a voice in a jar. Now there’s an end I envy!

  • jkm

    Oh, there are tomato sybils. Poor Cumae, however, is not among them. Michelangelo makes her sexless, heavy-limbed, and vastly aged–though the legend goes that she diminished in stature over her 1,000-year lifespan, ending as nothing but a voice in a jar. Now there’s an end I envy!

  • Anonymous

    Oh, THAT Sibyl. Well, she’s certainly buffed. I don’t believe my shoulders looked like hers on the best day of my life.

    My mom’s boyfriend just e-mailed me that he thinks he looks like one of the Easter Island sculptures, and that my mom looks like the Cypriot statues in the Metropolitan. I’m not about to argue.

  • lindenman

    Oh, THAT Sibyl. Well, she’s certainly buffed. I don’t believe my shoulders looked like hers on the best day of my life.

    My mom’s boyfriend just e-mailed me that he thinks he looks like one of the Easter Island sculptures, and that my mom looks like the Cypriot statues in the Metropolitan. I’m not about to argue.

  • http://twitter.com/Joi_the_Artist Joi Weaver

    I have a couple of friends who are into costuming, and have tried recreating several gowns and poses from the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paintings. Resulted in some cool pictures, to be sure!

  • http://twitter.com/Joi_the_Artist Joi

    I have a couple of friends who are into costuming, and have tried recreating several gowns and poses from the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paintings. Resulted in some cool pictures, to be sure!

  • http://juliecork.wordpress.com julie

    I’ve never seen myself in a famous painting, but I have sat for a group in Mesa that does portraits on Friday mornings. It’s interesting to see what other people make of your face.

  • http://juliecork.wordpress.com julie

    I’ve never seen myself in a famous painting, but I have sat for a group in Mesa that does portraits on Friday mornings. It’s interesting to see what other people make of your face.


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