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The Face of Genius

January 27, 2017

Until modern times, a widely accepted premise in the art world held that a bad picture of a famous person was more valuable than a brilliant painting of a still life or landscape. America has always lagged behind when it comes to creating great portrait artists. There are no masterpieces showing George Washington because the best painter in post Revolutionary War America was Gilbert Stuart, a competent craftsman lacking the spark of genius. And we can only wonder how Abraham Lincoln’s soulful eyes might have been rendered by a master like Rembrandt.


In the 1840s, photography began dealing a deathblow to oil portraits. Sitting for a photograph was easier and became a popular activity, even though it required the subject to remain motionless for extended periods of time while the image burned onto a copper plate. Many of the people in these pictures look dreadful by today’s standards; there was no soft lighting, color or airbrushing, and sitting motionless produced images of expressionless people, but sitting for a photograph was quicker and cheaper than sitting for an artist.


Currently, the music world is buzzing over a recently discovered photograph of Frédérick Chopin. The famous pianist and composer died at age thirty-nine, and only three photographs are known to exist, one being severely damaged. In this newly-found image, Chopin seems to be turning inward, making no effort to present a happy face to the camera. It isn’t a good picture, but it’s more revealing than the others. This newly discovered Daguerre photograph shows Chopin two years before his death in 1849. He was already dying of tuberculosis and probably weighed less than a hundred pounds.




Recently discovered picture of Chopin


Aside from three photographs, there are several oil portraits of Chopin. Artists have long been fascinated by music. Renaissance painters not only included musicians but often based entire paintings on the creation of music. Yet there are no good paintings of Chopin—with one exception.


A great friend and admirer of the Polish composer was famous painter Eugene Delacroix, the artist responsible for Liberty Leading the People. In 1847, Delacroix had a piano brought to his studio so he could paint his friend creating music. We don’t know why, but the painting was never completed. Chopin, painted by Delacroix with scorching speed, remains colorless, rendered only in underpainting or “dead” color. Accurate flesh tones were never added.




Chopin by Delacroix (1847)


The woman on his left and lost in the music is the composer’s lover, George Sand, a writer today known mostly for smoking cigars and dressing in men’s clothes. Delacroix kept the unfinished painting in his studio until his death, when a new owner cut the canvas in half, no doubt expecting two paintings to sell for more money than one.



A reconstruction of Delacroix’s double portrait of Chopin and George Sand, with natural flesh tones added.



Delacroix has rendered his friend in a nearly trancelike state, absorbed in his music. In comparison, society darling Franz Xaver Winterhalter, famous for painting Queen Victoria, created a polished pencil portrait revealing no passion or expression, although Chopin thought it a good likeness.



Chopin by Winterhalter


Even unfinished, Delacroix’s portrait brims with emotion. It’s unfinished quality, in my opinion, accentuates the composer’s passion for music but it also highlights his physical decline.


I’m glad another photograph of Chopin has been found, but when I want to feel the soul of the man I’ll turn to Delacroix’s painting. Better still, I’ll turn to Chopin’s music. 



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Have you watched the recent British Series on the young Queen Elizabeth where Winston Churchill has that famous portrait painted before his death whiich he hates and eventually burns? It was a series I certainly enjoyed as they spent some time on the relationship between the portrait artist and Churchill.
By: Tabor on January 27, 2017
Fascinating- I appreciate how you research facts and find images-thanks! And have a lovely weekend.
By: Kathe W. on January 27, 2017
No good pictures of me exist anywhere. Idea for a sci-fi story that's probably been done before: a painter goes back in time to create portraits of his favorite subjects.
By: PT Dilloway on January 27, 2017
The painting looks like it could have been made from the newly discovered photo, just not as sterile.
By: cranky on January 27, 2017
Always a pleasure reading your blog, Stephen, as it either makes me laugh or makes me smarter. Looked a lot more about Chopin, which I needed, because my memories of him right now are from Doc Holliday references in "Tombstone."
By: Mr. Shife on January 27, 2017
I enjoyed this post so much, Stephen. I have to admit a preference for photography. Heresy, I know! But that first painting of Chopin is quite strikingly similar to the photograph. I feel sorry for the man; dying of tuberculosis wasn't a pleasant way to go.
By: jenny_o on January 27, 2017
I find the photo very powerful, too. To me it does capture a similar mood to what Delacroix painted.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on January 27, 2017
Perhaps as sick as the man was, those were the correct flesh tones. Loved the idea of time traveling artist. If you get the chance Stephen--go for it.
By: Arkansas Patti on January 27, 2017
I never knew Chopin died so young from TB. This was a great post with a great lesson! Thanks.
By: Bee BB Bee on January 27, 2017
You always teach me something about composers or painting or art, and i appreciate it!
By: messymimi on January 27, 2017
For some reason I see tragedy and pathos in the photo. I think it's more expressive than the portrait, where Chopin looks strong but not emotional (to me). It's a shame that so many great musicians die early - and that trend continues today.
By: Lexa Cain on January 27, 2017
My grandparents had chalk portraits made. I wish I knew who of the family ended up wit the.
By: red Kline on January 27, 2017
Another art/history lesson; thank you!!
By: fishducky on January 27, 2017
That just seems wrong, cutting the painting in half!
By: Val on January 27, 2017
I know the portrait of Delacroix well and found it full of life and so vibrant even though the colours are the exact opposite. I love this new picture because he looks disgusted like something very unclean is near him:)
By: Birgit on January 27, 2017
The newly discovered photo has a haunting effect. Another informative and fascinating post.
By: Tom Cochrun on January 27, 2017
I find all of the pictures very interesting and to me they each reveal some of the soulfulness expressed in his music.
By: The Broad on January 28, 2017
Every day is a school day. Especially when I visit your blog. R
By: Rick Watson on January 28, 2017
Some people don't want to have their likeness captured in a painting or photograph. My mother would scold me for trying to take her photo.
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 28, 2017
Great post. As a Chopin enthusiast I am really happy about this discovery. I see pain in that picture, but not just of the physical type but also of the kind generated by a prolongued absence from his native Poland. Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on January 28, 2017
hi Stephen, another interesting post. thank you
By: Fran on January 29, 2017
A wonderful art history lesson. Thanks Stephen! :)
By: scott park on January 30, 2017

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