Portrait by an Artist

Sitting still for the sake of art

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

As Museum-goers and gallery-goers, and even as humble pageturners of plates in art books, we’ve all admired portraits by great painters. In some cases, we’re struck by the likeness; in others, the soulfulness of the subject.  We see the artist’s view of the model, but not the model’s view of the artist. How many of us have had the chance to take the seat that faces the artist and record him as he records his subject? 

I told my friend, the painter Paul Resika, that I had recently read three books written from the other side of the easel: Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, and Kathleen Rooney’s Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object

He immediately invited me to his summer home in Truro on Cape Cod to draw my portrait. His house, a former restaurant named Vista del Mare, with its white stucco arches and orange tiled roof, faces water in three directions: Cape Cod Bay, The Atlantic, and Pilgrim Lake. I had been there often for dinners and parties. The studio is the size of a three-car garage, filled with enormous paintings in progress. At 92, Paul is a vigorous presence, always in motion, happy to share his new work as well as showing new acquisitions of paintings by artists he admires.   

Paul’s drawing of me would be a simple charcoal sketch. He promised an oil painting in the future, which would be interesting from the artist about whom Hilton Kramer has written, “as a colorist-painter who draws in color with a loaded brush — he is now without peer in his own generation, a generation that has often made color its most important pictorial interest.”   

As I faced him, Paul quoted from the many poems he’s memorized — by Yeats, Eliot, and Auden.  I was particularly struck by the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s, “And Suddenly It’s Evening,” which Paul recites in the original as well as in translation: 

Each of us alone on the heart of the earth 

pierced by a ray of sunlight: 

and suddenly it’s evening. 

It’s a poem about the fierce passage of time, and how we come to the twilight of our lives without even noticing. Until one day, we do. 

Paul’s first sketch displeased him, and he made coffee before starting another. He asked me if I learned anything from the books I’d just read. I recalled snippets of Freud’s comments on Goya, Matisse, and Titian, but what I remembered best had little to do with art, like Freud saying English sailors were typical of the culinary tastes of the British. On one occasion, Freud took several of her Majesty’s seamen to a fine restaurant, after which one said, “The thing is, Lu, we don’t like food with all them flavors in it.”   

Reading Gayford’s book is like eavesdropping on an intelligent, informed dialogue, making the reader a privileged third party. He notes that the arrangement between artist and sitter is “so remorselessly intimate that — as in a marriage or long relationship — any small incompatibilities are likely to cause friction sooner or later.” We watch one man bring the other to life in a way that could last beyond both their lifetimes. Gayford asks, toward the end of the book, “What is this thing called ‘me’?  That is, of course, the central enigma of portraiture.” By the final pages, the reader asks himself same question, so the book is not only about the making of art, but about life itself. 

My pleasure in Gayford’s account led me to seek similar books, which is how I discovered Kathleen Rooney’s Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object and James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait. Rooney’s subtitle, “my life as an object,” describes the book accurately, and she keeps the reader in the company of flesh and blood, as when a rather unsavory photographer directs her to pose in ways he calls, “really beautiful, really arty.”  Rooney writes, “I flipped myself over, a piece of meat on a grill . . . ” 

Rooney did not sit for major painters, but rather for aspiring artists, art classes and photographers, in order to pay the high rents in the Boston area where she lived.  But there is more to her pursuit of this vocation — Rooney finds in modeling an opportunity for “self-exploration and empathy.” In one of the best scenes, Rooney summons the courage to tell her mother about her line of work. She tries to soften the blow by noting the nudes in the Vatican, hoping to clinch her argument by citing Michelangelo’s David. Her mother replies: “David didn’t have a mother.” 

James Lord’s slim volume on Giacometti records the 18 days that the author, then a young writer, sat for the artist at the height of his fame, so the sitting sessions in his Paris studio are often interrupted by admirers. Lord depicts the Giacometti’s extraordinary self-doubt and frustration. He’s always threatening to “give up painting forever,” and wishing that “someone else could paint what I see . . . because then I could stop painting for good.”  He stands at his easel disturbing the silence with his “customary gasps and expletives,” while Lord keeps postponing his trip to New York, hoping and wishing the work finished.  In the tension between Lord’s need to leave and Giacometti’s continuously undoing what he has accomplished the day before, we glimpse the artist’s modus operandi.  We also understand the friendship between the two men, as they try to accommodate each other. Lord writes that Giacometti was “condemned to the attempt” to make the portrait, while he assumed a pose “in which at times it had seemed that I might be paralyzed forever.” 

I was in no such hurry to leave my friend’s studio. As Paul drew, I almost forgot he was drawing me; he had made me that comfortable. And when he began the second sketch, he was amused to discover what was wrong with the first: he had forgotten to include my horn-rimmed glasses! Before I left in the early evening, we compared the two drawings: the first showing me as I once was, and the other, as I am now — the passage of time unintentionally but accurately recorded in charcoal. •

John Skoyles has published six books of poems and five of prose. His most recent book is Driven, a memoir in travelogue form. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor of Ploughshares.

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