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.
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?