Fresh from a fascination with Henry VIII, thanks to Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the Korda brothers’ Private Life of Henry VIII, I started thinking about how Hans Holbein’s the Younger’s portrait of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was powerful enough to change history. I guess Hans was the instant messenger of his day, sent over to the continent to bring back a picture for Henry’s Facebook wall, a picture that Henry’s friends could comment on and persuade him of Anne’s overwhelming beauty (which according to legend did not measure up in real life, leading to a quick annulment, but that’s another story).
What impresses me is that a simple portrait could have so much power. The painting, a watercolor, is now in the Louvre’s collection; I may have seen it on a visit to Paris eleven years ago without knowing about its legends. In any event, it’s now on my portrait bucket list, so that if and when I return to Paris, or if it ever travels to a distant shore as Anne herself did, and lands in San Francisco, I will seek it out.
And that got me thinking on what other portraits I would consider worth traveling to see. I’d start with the ones I’ve already seen, that have captured my attention for long minutes when the rest of the gallery has faded away and I have been left one-on-one with a vibrating image a few feet away from me.
Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.
John Singer Sargent’s Daughters of Edward Darley Boit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Of course if I ever do see this painting, it will require a revisit to the Prado for the Velasquez original and to Barcelona for Picasso’s meditations on Velasquez).
Edouard Manet’s small portrait, Angelina, in Velasquez’ black palette that I saw at the Musee d’Orsay’s traveling exhibition, The Birth of Impressionism.
Any and all of Joaquín Sorolla’s loving portraits of his wife Clotilde at the Museo Sorolla in Madrid.
And the entire portrait collection at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The Ghirlandaio portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is just an example of the depth of this collection (which also has one of Holbein’s Henry VIII).
Side note: this article is the first of my participation in WordPress’s 2011 “post a week” project.