My first night here I took the Metro from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, where you come up just across the street from the National Portrait Gallery. I hadn’t seen this guy in ages but I wanted to meet him again. It was 6:15 when I emerged from under the sidewalk, and I ran across the street only to be confounded by a small but lovely little arts festival, strung with lacy white lights and smelling temptingly of funnel cakes, which was blocking one of the main entrances. So I had to walk around to the other side.
It was a long way around and I was late.
I ran up the steps and through the open brass gates into the gleaming white marble museum. I mentioned his name to the front desk receptionist and asked her if she knew where he was. She had no idea.
This I found hard to believe. He is well known. His face (which I flashed for her on my phone—I had several shots) ought to be recognized by anyone who knows about American portrait art. He’s here a lot, I said. All the time, I think.
If he were still here, she said, I might be able to find him hanging somewhere around the early American wing. But she doubted he would still be there.
I was sure I’d find him.
I walked back into the long bright hallway, hung with flat-looking folk-arty portraits of pioneers both political and geographic—Lucretia Mott, Quaker feminist. Daniel Boone, mountain hardcase. Walked past several galleries and there he was, right in the middle under the hottest light, just as I knew he’d be. But with another woman.
I first saw John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait in 1976. The “Bicentennial” year. We had come to visit my grandmother in Baltimore. My grandfather, a mean drunk who terrorized my mother during her childhood, had died in February of cancer in his liver, and my mother had helped nurse him. She was in bad shape for a while after he died.
When we visited Baltimore—twice a year, Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day—we never left the half-acre plot of suburban-Baltimore land my grandfather had bought after the war. The one exception was to go to church, which was just up the street; but we drove anyway. We never walked anywhere. We were suburban.
But in 1976 my dad, who had grown up in a city, decided we’d go to Washington, D.C. for the July festivities.
I remember my mother bitching in advance that the heat would kill us all. “Washington’s just built on a swamp, anyway,” she’d say. (I sit in “Foggy Bottom” at this moment.) We went anyway. In the end, my mother would always allow my dad to make the decisions, then she’d bitch about them behind his back. Classic alcoholic-family behavior.
In fact the heat was terrible—awesome, in a literal sense. Annihilating. Every time we’d walk out of a museum (the museums were free! We could go to as many as we wanted!!) the heat and humidity would hit us like a hot wet towel in our faces. We’d struggle to breathe and listen to my mother complain about the heat till we reached the doors of the next museum, where my mother would stop for a while and we could finally inhale air and relax. (I’m surprised now that my dad made it so long without a beer. I’m sure he grabbed a six of National Bohemian on the drive back to Grandma’s. He never drank in the car, but he could down a beer pretty quick before getting in.)
The National Portrait Gallery was one of my two favorite museums. (The other was the American History museum.) So many faces of so many people painted and drawn in so many ways. I’d already been drawing faces for some time.
And at 11 years old, I stood in front of John Singleton Copley’s self-portrait for a long, long time.
As far as I can remember, I hadn’t seen the picture since 1976. I wanted to know what I’d liked about it.
A handsome face. Straight nose; full lips; blue eyes with shadows cast over them. Blonde, as far as we can tell—a fair face with light eyebrows. A bit of a five-o’clock shadow. He’s between 45 and 50 in the painting.
I can see now, having painted faces, that what I responded to was the spontaneity in the painting. It’s unfinished. It’s a sketch, almost a vignette. The brushwork is very fresh and alive. The palette is warm—he uses a lot of warm reds tending toward orange, even in shadows. The brushwork is rough and ready, full of movement, spontaneous, sketchy. Unfinished. True.
Also, he’s smart: he’s obviously using mirrors. How else would he get this perspective? Most self-portraits had been drawn full-face.
A smart man. A spontaneous man. A handsome man. A skilled man. A hard-working man.
A man who could see things. And express himself.
For a long time I had a pen that I’d brought home from Washington, a cheap ballpoint pen that had a tall ship floating in a harbor on its barrel. But what I really treasured from that visit, what will never leave me, is seeing that guy. Thank God for the Smithsonian, which makes art free to the people, and for my Dad, who insisted we go do things once in a while.