Portraits of people looking sideways are fascinating. Every portrait tells multiple stories; a story of the sitter, a story of the artist, a story of the place and moment in time when the portrait was made. I find it particularly interesting when the subject of a portrait is looking at you in a sideways pose, sitting in the center of the composition, with their body facing to one side (not quite at right angle), facing you almost above eye level, turning their head slightly towards you, and seemingly resting their eyes. The image formed by such a pose is mesmerizing, and it is begging that you guess all the complexities of the stories being told.
Consider for example Vermeer’s iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. A young woman wearing a blue turban and an exotic costume sits in a dark room, in an intimate setting that draws the viewer’s attention exclusively on her. She seems to have been caught in a fleeting moment, as she turns her head over her shoulder and catches you eye. You note that her eyes are wide, and her lips parted as if she is about to speak. According to Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel published in 1999, the girl in the painting is a housemaid named Griet who works in Vermeer’s home and becomes his paint mixer. This is a lovely interpretation of the sideways glance that the girl gives the viewer. I like to imagine that she is an innocent young woman, wearing an outlandishly fashionable outfit and oversized earrings, and whispering, “this is fun, but I have to go back to work soon.”
Another beautiful example of the sideways pose is Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. This painting expresses Van Gogh’s artistic power, as well as his personal struggles. He painted it in January 1889, a week after cutting off most of his left ear. Firstly, the colors and composition of the portrait are beautiful. The colorful Japanese print on the wall and a partly open blue window next to it express hope and a love for a different type of art (so different than the dark-colored art Europe was accustomed to). As Vincent wrote in 1888: “All my work to some extent is based on Japanese art.” The open window to the left express a need to get fresh air into his room, into his life. The reason the painting is so powerful is because Van Gogh is sharing his most intimate soul and vulnerabilities in this painting, as he did with so many of his works. As a teenager, I cried foolishly when I first saw Kirk Douglas (as Vincent) and Anthony Quinn (as Gauguin) in “Lust for Life,” the best movie ever made regarding Van Gogh (1956). I later recreated those tears when I read “Van Gogh: The Life,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (2012), which detailed the complex relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo. The love between these two brothers lasted an entire lifetime. In his letters to Theo during the time that he painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent said the following “As far as I can judge I’m not mad, strictly speaking. You will see that the canvasses I have done in the intervals are calm and not inferior to others. I miss work rather than it tires me.” I like to think that when Theo first saw this portrait of Vincent, his thoughts were of pain, compassion, and love.
Perhaps the best example of the sideways portrait is the man in the doorway standing in the back of Velazquez’s Las Meninas (painted in 1656). This work of art is one of the most written-about paintings in history. Scholars have identified the man in the doorway, in the back and center of the painting, as José Nieto Velazquez, chamberlain to the queen and a relative of the artist. His sideways pose in the open doorway, with a bit of bright light, draws the viewer’s eyes into the distance. He seems to be frozen mid-movement; his feet are on different steps, and it is impossible to tell whether he is coming or up or going down the stairways. Art historian Joel Snyder, argues that Nieto is opening the door for the king and queen to leave; this is why Velazquez has stepped away from his canvas and the girls (las meninas) are poised to curtsy. Las Meninas represents Spain’s greatest contribution to the world of art, one that has inspired countless studies, visits, and speculations, as each viewer forms their own opinion on the meaning of this masterpiece.
If you think about it, the images that our mind and our memories make of our most significant past experiences often include “sideway portraits.”
Take for example the first time you met your future wife, on a subway platform. She was standing in front of you, waiting for the train, wearing a handknitted waste-length sweater and a red scarf. You recognized her, but you did not know her name. As the train was pulling in, she turned sideways to face you. You instantly noticed her large green eyes and bright red lips, and you were mesmerized by her porcelain complexion. She smiled at you, and said “I think you are in my Greek Lit Course” and proceeded to introduce herself. That sideways portrait of her has been in your memories ever since.
Or what about 25 years later, when you moved out of the house after the divorce was final, and you stepped into the foyer to say goodbye after all your things were packed and ready to go. She was busy with the children in the kitchen, but she peeked her head sideways through the foyer doorway and gave you a quiet look. She said nothing. The silence said everything. That image will always be with you. Fortunately you are still dear friends.
And finally, what about the time you first met your current husband? It was a blind date and you were to meet at a wine bar in D.C. You were very early (as usual), and he was quite late (as usual). There were nice individual tables in the wine bar, but you chose to sit at the bar counter, on a stool, waiting for him. He came in twenty minutes after you, and headed towards the comfortable tables to the right of the doorway. He stopped midway, and turned to look at you sitting on high stool at the bar counter. He recognized you, pointed at you with a shaking finger (the universal “No” sign), and pointed his other hand towards the tables, as if saying, “come sit at the tables instead of the bar, like a normal, civilized person.” Your immediate thought was, “Wow, he’s really interesting!” You have been together ten years. The sideways image of him at the doorway of the wine bar has never left you.
Throughout this blog post, I have inserted photos of collages I have made of sideway portraits. Write to me and tell me what stories these portraits tell you. Or better yet, tell me the favorite sideways portrait memory from your own life.
(c) 2021 Ernesto Beckford