Not as much as we think.
You ever go to an art gallery, especially a portrait gallery, check out a painting of a person from a way back before the advent of photography and wonder,
“Is that what they really looked like?”
I say it’s, at best, fifty-fifty.
Think about it. You’re the Duke or Duchess of Someplace. And although photography has yet to be invented, mirrors have been around for quite some time. And before that, clear ponds. There are no surprises here. You know what you look like. And you are less than certain you want some portrait of that hanging on a wall.
This concern is not just, or even primarily, for average-looking people, or lower. Beautiful-looking people may harbor an even greater vanity, as their reputations rely primarily on their looks, thus requiring them to evaluate their appearances more severely, whereas average-looking people, or lower, have long-ago thrown in the towel.
“I am reputed to be the most splendid-looking fellow in all of Someplaceland, yet my looking glass says, ‘seriously flawed.’ Am I now to be immortalized on canvas, only to have future generations pass dismissively by my official portrait, going, ‘I don’t see it’?”
(NOTE: I am focusing on men. It could easily be otherwise.)
This reality must have been agonizing. And yet, it had to be done. Traditionally, the Lord of the Manor (or Laird, if he was Scottish) had to be painted, joining the pantheon of scions who preceded him, hanging side-by-side in the Family Gallery.
And now, it’s their turn. How did they handle it?
“Tell Signore Painterman I am currently indisposed.”
“But Your Grace, you’ve been putting him off for fourteen years.”
“The inconvenience is regrettable. But I am simply not in the mood. Imagine what future generations would think of a portrait of me in my current condition. ‘He seemed so tortured.’ I am not ‘tortured.’ I have a recurrent stomach ailment.”
“Sire, I am not unaware that I take my life in my hands by saying this, but…it’s time.”
“You’re right, on both counts. It is time. And you are taking your life in your hands by saying it. You see? I’m funny. You think that will show up in the portrait of a man with serious gastric concerns? Of course not. They’re never know me. I will be immortalized for all time as ‘The Dyspeptic Duke’.”
“Sire, Signore Painterman is the finest of practitioner in all of Someplaceland. Besides, you have nothing to lose. If you’re unhappy with his efforts, you may consign them to the flames. And if you’re really unhappy, you may consign Signore Painterman there too.”
“It would be a first. I have never burnt a painter. All right. Send him in.”
SIGNORE PAINTERMAN IS BROUGHT IN.
“Your Grace. Thank you for seeing me.”
“My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
“Fourteen years. It is nothing. I got a lot of reading done in your antechamber. And I taught myself calculus.”
“Let not this delay suggest hesitation on my part. I have simply been otherwise engaged. And I’ve been sick.”
“No explanation is necessary.”
“Of course not. I am just being nice. Which, I would wish, would be reflected in my portrait.”
“‘Nice’ is my specialty, Your Grace.”
“Good. Now, before we begin, let it be clear that you are to paint me exactly as I am. Warts and all. ‘Warts and all’ being a metaphor for, as you can see…no warts.”
“None, Your Grace.”
“At least none that are showing. I’m kidding. I’m a funny duke. I want that in the picture too. Not because I want to be falsely remembered as funny, but because I actually am.”
“And so you shall be portrayed.”
“It’s not a portrayal. I am genuinely funny. Everybody says so. Or I have them killed. There, you see? Funny again.”
“You will be immortalized exactly as you are.”
“It’s my sincerest wish. Although I am quite certain not all subjects hold their portraitists to such lofty standards. Am I correct?”
“Your Grace, it would be imprudent for me to say.”
“They all cheat a little, don’t they?
“Professional ethics prevent me from responding.”
“Fine. I wiIl respect your “Painter’s Ethics.’ Truth be told, however, I have seen people I know who look nothing at all like the way they were painted. You have to look down at the nameplate to see who the heck it is. Where’s the droopy eyelid? Where’s the weak chin? Princess ‘Big Nose’? Not anymore. Count Whatshisname, got shot in the forehead. The hole is filled in! It’s a joke, I tell you. And the joke’s on posterity. If you actually know the person, it’s like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But posterity will be totally bamboozled. They’ll think that painting is really them. That’s hilarious, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps we should get started.”
“Right after you agree that’s hilarious.”
“Hee hee hee. Now…”
“That’s not going to happen here, you can count on that! We are going for verisimilitudinous accuracy.” The Duke of Someplace – The Genuine Article.
“I will alter nothing. Now, our first issue is positioning. I offer you the two classic options: By the fireplace, or sitting in a chair.”
“‘I choose ‘fireplace.’ A Man of Action. Standing manfully by his hearth. ”
THE DUKE STRIDES OVER TO THE HEARTH, POSITIONING HIMSELF TO ONE SIDE, SO HE DOESN’T GET TOO HOT POSING DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE FIRE. UNFORTUNATELY, THE HEARTH IS TRADITIONALLY LARGE, MAKING THE DUKE, BY CONTRAST, LOOK DISPROPORTIONATELY LITTLE, AN ARRANGEMENT THAT CATCHES THE IMMEDIATE ATTENTION OF THE DUKE.
(QUICKLY ABANDONING THE HEARTH) “Okay. I want to make this clear. I am sure you’ll agree that, by Duchy standards, I am in no way a man who would be considered to be of less than average height.”
“In no way, Your Grace.”
“I am, in fact, rather tall.”
“Considerably above average. No question.“
"The thing is that standing by that oversized hearth, I actually look, though I am in reality not – short."
"Sitting it is then, Sire.”
“Unless you can paint in a smaller hearth.”
“Sitting would be preferable.”
“Agreed. Not that we’re misrepresenting anything, you understand. We are simply alleviating a visual misunderstanding brought about by an unfortunate ‘Duke-hearth’ juxtaposition.”
“A ‘change of venue’, so to speak.”
“And nothing more.”
THE DUKE PROCEEDS TO AN ORNATE, ARM-CHAIRED SEAT, DROPS INTO IT, ADJUSTS HIS SITTING POSITION, AND SETTLES, ONE ARM RESTING IN HIS LAP, THE OTHER ON THE ARM OF THE CHAIR.”
“All right. You may now paint me…exactly as I am.
SIGNORE PAINTERMAN BEGINS SETTING UP HIS EQUIPMENT.
“Wait! Does this chair make me look fat?”