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Essayist Clarence Page Considers Two Portrait Artists

May 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CLARENCE PAGE: Gilbert Stuart used to say that he made his bread by making faces. That’s like Fred Astaire saying that he did a little dancing. To make faces is to open windows and hold up mirrors.

The great American portrait painter’s awesome talents, currently on display at the National Gallery of art in Washington, D.C., as well as the dollar bill, gives us more than faces; it brings new life to a long past era: The world of America’s founders: George Washington; John and Abigail Adams; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; James Monroe.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words can we find in these faces? A perceptive portrait artist offers more than a mug shot, more than a mechanically captured moment in the life of its subject. The artist wants more than the facts, man. The artist wants truth.

That never ending search for truth, along with a touch of class, helps to explain why the old-fashioned art of portrait painting endures, even in an era of digital photographer, high- res TV and other new technologies.

That’s why out in suburban Washington, a few miles from the National Gallery’s display, you can find the most recent presidential portrait painter, Simmie Knox, the first African American to have the honor. His clients have included Hank Aaron, Mohammad Ali, Bill and Camille Cosby and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Icons as significant to today’s America as Stewart’s subjects were to his.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now will you join me on the stage for the presentation?

CLARENCE PAGE: But Knox’s best-known work was unveiled last year by President Bush. After spending some time with Bill Clinton, Knox chose to capture the enigmatic ex-president in a dramatic pose, standing square shouldered and strong, facing the viewer full on, his eyes weary and defiant as if to say, take me as I am; let history be my judge.

Separated by two centuries and the color line, Gilbert Stuart and Simmie Knox have something important in common. Each set out to do more than make faces. They wanted to tell a visual story. Gilbert sometimes refused to finish faces that ceased to interest him. Those he did finish were not always the most flattering. His portraits of Washington famously reveal in the retired general’s lips a serious discomfort with his ill-fitting false teeth. Dickens said there were only two kinds of portrait: The serious and the smirk.

Levity seldom finds its way into presidential portraits, yet, Knox did coax a warm and engaging face out of the ailing Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His friends and family loved it; yet, at its unveiling, Marshal expressed an objection. "I’ve always wanted to be remembered as a hanging judge," he said. The artist had a different idea and the painting is better for it.

PAINTER: I believe that the eyes are mirrors to the soul.

MAN: Absolutely.

PAINTER: I think it’s all in the eyes.

CLARENCE PAGE: Every portrait that is painted with feeling," Oscar Wilde once wrote," is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter." Gilbert Stuart and Simmie Knox have that much in common, too. In the course of making faces, the great portrait artists often reveal their own. I’m Clarence Page.