The Shy Museumgoer

ART + HISTORY

A home office fit for a genius

Imagine you’ve been asked to paint a portrait of Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius (“Call me Jerome”) in his study, which he uses as a home office.

To help you capture Jerome’s character, here’s a little bit of biographical information. He’s an erudite humanist who can read and write in three ancient languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He’s famous for being the first person to translate the Bible’s Old and New Testaments into Latin, thus providing the source material for almost all translations to follow. His correspondence with Western philosophers — particularly Augustine of Hippo — still influences the way we define democracy today.

Oh, wait….and for several years he wandered the desert searching for inner peace, and his household pet is a lion.

It’s (really) complicated

For centuries European artists used standard poses, gestures, clothing, and backgrounds to convey a person’s role in society. Even so, painting Jerome’s portrait is complicated because he lived during the fourth and fifth centuries. Who can say what he looked like? Or what his workspace looked like?

As it happens, quite a few people have tried, including a Renaissance artist from Sicily with a flair for razor-sharp detail —

Antonello da Messina, "Saint Jerome in his Study" (c.1475)
Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study (c.1475)

Antonello da Messina imagined Jerome in a cathedral-like environment to spotlight his role as a leading theologian. Center stage, the artist painted a free-standing desk that looks uncharacteristically modern — like kit-furniture for which some assembly was required. To my eye, Jerome’s office looks improbably neat for a writer. He even removes his shoes before climbing the three steps.

A peacock perched in the doorway symbolizes everlasting life, a concept deeply rooted in Jerome’s research, while a lion watches over the writer from the shadows of a colonnade. The window on our left overlooks a verdant view fit for a humanist: two women strolling by a river, lovers rowing in a rowboat, a flock of sheep looking for their shepherd.

Antonello’s painting of St Jerome is beautifully detailed…

….but it’s more symbolic than realistic, more 15th century than fourth century, more Europe than the Holy Land. By comparison, an artist from Naples named Niccolò Antonio Colantonio imagined a much different home office —

Niccolo Antonio Colantonio, "Saint Jerome in his Study" (c.1445)
Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, Saint Jerome in his Study (c.1445)

A makeshift bulletin board, dried-up ink pens, disorderly books….speaking from personal experience, this looks more like a writer’s home office. The hourglass on Jerome’s desk reminds us we’re all on a tight deadline. Behind him, a mouse blithely nibbles on a piece of cheese.

Legend has it Jerome was teaching a group of students in Bethlehem when a lion came limping into the monastery. Everyone fled except the lecturer, who could see the animal was in severe pain. Jerome examined the lion’s foot and extracted a large thorn. After that, the lion never left his side.

In Colantonio’s painting the lion surveys us, as we survey the lion. It’s a clever ploy. He’s got our attention.

Can a photograph be as compelling as a great painted portrait?

Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, moved to New York City in 1890 determined to prove that photography is just as capable of artistic expression as painting.

Alfred Stieglitz, "Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe" (c.1930)
Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe (c.1930)

But is it? A photograph is faster, more accurate, and less expensive than a painted portrait (though not always). But is it as persuasive? As definitive? Is there a qualitative difference between paintings by Rembrandt and Velázquez on the one hand, and photographs by Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz on the other?

For centuries the whole point of having your portrait painted was to confirm your role in society. It had little to do with our modern, lonely desire to feel seen for who we really are. Do we still believe a person can be described from a single viewpoint in one place? Will multimedia replace the official portrait? Will an important portrait ever be painted again?

I asked David Valdez, a former White House photographer, for his perspective:

Several photographers I know say still photography is dead. I disagree. People look at social media and multimedia for a few seconds and then those images are gone. A great single image lasts forever. Remember the image of a very young John Kennedy saluting his father’s casket? The portrait of a naked John Lennon hugging Yoko Ono? The image of a Chinese man bravely standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square?

I do think multimedia will add to the official portrait. But painted likenesses will always be a part of our society.

Where will the next great portrait painter come from? It’s anyone’s guess.

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