Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 5
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate

Henderson Sotheby's International Realty

N.T. Callaway Princeton Office

Stockton Real Estate, LLC

Weichert, Realtors

Advertise in Town Topics

Iris Interiors

Advertise in Town Topics

Weather Forecast

“O, Could He But Have Drawne His Wit”: Firestone Exhibit Offers Authors’ Portraits

Ellen Gilbert

It will come as no surprise that the reclusive J.D. Salinger is not among the 100 representations of writers in “The Author’s Portrait,” the newest exhibit in Firestone Library’s Main Gallery.

Aesop, Colette, James Baldwin, Beatrix Potter (age 19, holding a dormouse), Cervantes, Dante, the fictional Lemuel Gulliver, and a pensive Lewis Carroll are there, however, along with Washington Irving, Jorge Luis Borges, George Sand, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce (in a Brancusi abstract), Phillis Wheatley, Virginia Woolf, and more.

“It is not surprising that a library with such rich collections of literature as Princeton University would also hold a large number of author portraits, both bound with and independent from the books,” writes Graphic Arts Curator Julie Mellby in her preface to the exhibit’s checklist. What makes the exhibit truly memorable is, perhaps, the extraordinary range of mediums and formats, which are as varied as the authors themselves and span centuries of stylistic and technological changes.

While Goethe, Swift, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Leopardi are represented by masks, Homer, Virgil, Confucious, Ovid, Chaucer, and Dante appear in engraved frontispieces. The frizz of Colette’s red hair in a pen and ink watercolor of the author of Gigi by American artist Stephen Longstreet Weiner makes an interesting contrast to a somber, wide-eyed self-portrait by Zelda Fitzgerald.

Context is important, and portrait captions offer some nice details. The portrait of Virginia Woolf — also by Weiner — was done in 1928, the “fanciful” year the 45-year-old writer travelled to Paris with Vita Sackville-West. The 83-year old Victor Hugo did not make life easy for August Rodin when he refused to do formal sittings for a portrait. He did, however, invite the artist to dinner every Sunday, and allow him to work on the verandah, “where he caught glimpses of the writer through the evening.”

There’s appropriate magic in Hungarian artist Istvén Orosz’s anamorphic etching of Jules Verne, which is recognizable only when viewed in a curved cylinder placed over the moon in the scene of a shipwreck from The Mysterious Island. In a very modern-looking rendering, David Hockney re-imagines the Greek poet Cavafy in a Beirut street scene.

Salinger was certainly not the first writer to disdain publicity. After a falling-out with artist William Marshall, John Milton told his readers (in Greek, so the artist would not understand), to “laugh at the botching artist’s mis-attempt.” An impatient Goethe “finally refused to pose ever again, complaining that artists had ‘often tortured and plagued’ him.”

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, are those who relished the limelight and took care to nurture a particular vision of themselves. With a tilted hat, open-necked white shirt, and hand in his pocket, the 36-year-old Walt Whitman appears to be the image of spontaneous casualness in Samuel Hollyer, Jr.’s portrait of him from a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison. “Although he assures readers that this portrait was made impromptu, in the clothes he happened to to be wearing that day,” we know that Whitman actually worked with the young engraver, Samuel Hollyer, “to create a specific persona,” the picture’s description tells us. “The informal attire, together with the standing pose was a defiant rejection of literary tradition and a declaration that a new generation of poetry had begun.”

“The Author’s Portrait” runs through July 5. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays, and noon to 5 p.m. weekends.

Return to Previous Story | Return to Top | Go to Next Story

Town Topics® may be purchased on Wednesday mornings at the following locations: Princeton — McCaffrey’s, Cox’s, Kiosk (Palmer Square), Krauszer’s (State Road), Olives, Speedy Mart (State Road), Wawa (University Place); Hopewell — Village Express; Rocky Hill — Wawa (Route 518); Pennington — Pennington Market.
Copyright© Town Topics®, Inc. 2011.