Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The National Portrait Gallery: A Place for Important White Guys

September 3, 2010 · 1 Comment

The National Portrait Gallery: full of important, rich, white men (and a few others). Like most large art galleries, in my experience, those prominently featured are mainly white males. There are a few portraits of Tudor women, but they are also all white. In the exhibits featuring portraits from more recent centuries, there are increasingly more women, but I can count on both hands the number of portraits of non-whites. I feel that this is partly a reflection of what was considered acceptable subject matter for paintings in earlier centuries. It was common to paint royalty and wives or daughters of important men, but it seems that women had to be extremely important to be prominently featured in a portrait.

One of my favorite portraits was one from the Tudor era. It was, like many others, the portrait of a white male. It is, however, a self-portrait. Michael Dahl, a prominent portrait painter who moved from Sweden to England in 1682, painted his self-portrait in 1691.

Self-portrait by Michael Dahl 

I loved this portrait, mainly because I am fascinated by the mere concept of self-portraits. It is amazing to me to think about different peoples’ unique perspectives. The man that Dahl saw in his mirror when painting his self-portrait is probably not the same man that others saw when looking at him. Something else I found interesting about the portrait is the choices that Dahl made when painting it. For example, he decided not to wear a wig, the opposite of how nearly all the other men of the time were depicted. He chose to stand in his portrait and to gesture at a table which held a bust and his painting implements. He chose to paint himself from the knees up, holding an artist’s smock over his arm which covers much of his lower body. This self-portrait shows us the way Dahl wanted to be remembered. He wanted to be seen in ordinary clothes, without a wig and without makeup, with the tools of his profession nearby.

Even setting aside all of the interesting choices Dahl made, I was immediately drawn to the portrait. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Dahl’s attention to light and shadow and his depiction of different textures astounded me. I love the way the light shines on the fabric of his right shoulder and his smock. Even the shadows and detailing on his face were more remarkable to me than in many other paintings from the same era. But then, I have to wonder just how accurate the self-portrait really is. Did Dahl omit less favorable features because of personal vanity or did he paint himself exactly as others see him? Was he more or less critical of himself than others were of him? I wish I could answer these questions, but I can only make assumptions based on my limited knowledge of psychology.

Categories: 2010 Jessica
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1 response so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 3rd 2010 at 16:11

    Good questions. I think nearly all portraits, like biographies, are selective representations. Self-portraits (as autobiographies) likely add another layer obfuscation. Don’t forget the photo credit.

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