At the National Portrait Gallery:
The following is lifted straight from the free-writing I did while looking at the above portrait, with no changes or proofreading.
- 15 min. sitting in front
- Listening to Monteverdi, a composer (Italian) of the same era
- Painted in 1588, at his prime
He wears a white doublet painted with a delicate almost feather-like brush stroke, giving it a translucent and textured quality. There is a subtle blush of pink, pronounced on the collar. The sleeve billows, and the soft crystalline texture is even more pronounced. Big buttons made of a large central pearl surrounded by rings of smaller pearls line the front. The cuff is tight around a dainty wrist, also made of two rings of pears. The color of the shirt shimmers silver, like an iridescent pearl. His pants are a rich black, almost velvet, and decorated with swirling pearls. A black belt with pearls criss-crosses the bottom of the tunic. His endlessly rich cape (black) is thrown intentionally carelessly over his left shoulder. It has a color of deep brown, made of fur, the lines delicate and detailed, pointing in every direction, as if just tousled by a sea wind. The cape is striped with thinning lines of pearls that go across the fabric in waves.
A high forehead, a slightly receding hairline, pale-skinned but with red lips and a wind-burned deep pink to the cheeks. A pointy beard extending just past the Adam’s apple/high collar of lace or silk. Deep brown eyes, painted with a challenging aspect to them, slightly arched left eyebrow–the hairs smooth & fine–and dangling from the visible left ear, a heavy bauble of a double-pear earring.
He rest his hand on the edge of a green table. The background is a dark brown/olive green, like the patina on a painted ship after months at sea. “Amor et Vertutti” is inscribed directly left to his head. (Love and Virtue? To Elizabeth?)
His expression is serious, but slightly bemused. The painter has added a slight twinkle to the eye. His nose is prominent, but well shaped, as if etched from wood.
He looks like a sailor and adventure (which if I remember correctly, he was) rich, a little wild, strong but also light and delicate, loyal, and dangerously uncomfortable in his clothing.
The hilt of a sword (pearl again, Elizabeth did love those pearls) barely peaks out from under the cape. On closer inspection, I would describe the doublet as quilted, with some lace ruffle at the collar. What would Raleigh say to me?
“A little ridiculous to expect me to just talking to you Alex, what with all these people around. Stories are best shared over rum, if you ask me. That lady in the polka-dot dress is eyeing my jawline I think. Not that I’m surprised. What can I tell you? Really not much. I serve the Queen and am sworn to secrecy on most subjects. But I can say the best whitebait is on my friend’s galleon, the Golden Hinde. Crispy food I live for. Actually I live for attacking the Spanish Armada.”
Ugh time’s up what even is that monologue. Nothing happens.
You notice the performative aspects of life in art museums. This portrait of Raleigh is performative, meant to serve a purpose. Political, to show his allegiance to the Queen, also to glorify and commemorate. I’m playing the role of studious bohemian, with my glasses and notebook, writing in art museums. I wish I knew what people around me were thinking, reacting to the portraits. I’m immediately thinking narratively. Raleigh looks like a pirate, cool, adventurous, Makes me want to see a play about him. What are other looking at?”
At the Tate Modern. Note, I didn’t free-write to this portrait of Elizabeth until several weeks later, but did go to compare the placement of art in the Tate Britain (which will be in an upcoming post about the Restoration and Reformation period).
“Painted in 1563 (she is 30 yrs. old). It is just a luminous painting. Clearly emphasizing her beauty, power, eligibility to be married. The gold heraldic tapestry behind her is shining so bright, the red carpet rich rich rich! Her face stern. Her dress complex. I do wonder why more productions aren’t done in the fully authentic Elizabethan dress style. Only The White Devil, which is Jacobean, kinda tried, but it was infused with so many steampunk elements. I guess it’d be hard to get the full richness of the era to translate to the stage without a huge budget. I may be understanding a bit more why the debate, that is so fierce, around Emma Rice’s direction at Shakespeare’s Glove. Looking now at this portrait, D Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet seemed forced, coarse. I still think there is a place for their version of Shakespeare. But oh how I would love to see a group of actors at the Globe dressed like this; sumptuous, regal, resplendent in fine detail. I mean the velvet folds of Elizabeth’s dress are fascinating enough in stillness of portraiture. Imagine what’d it look like in motion under the heavens, with an actress delivering lines of pure beauty. I think , if I saw that, a small part of me would fall in love.
The arguments over the direction of the Globe struck me at first as slightly regressive. But as I sit here and see the high esteem the British have, the respect they have, for tradition…I’m getting it. That is such an American view, “Out with the old, in with the new,” (hey that rhymes) but Europe is different. And rightly so. There has to be a place where the old is respected and explored and kept alive. You can’t add dynamism @ the Globe by trampling the Elizabethan to death. You elevate it and bring it too life on its own merits.
I like the thought that this Queen in this portrait loved the theatre and was a patron of Shakespeare. She made it happen, in some ways. What must their interactions have been like? Did he make her laugh? Did he make her smile? Did he make her cry? Could a Queen show emotion like that in public? Maybe not. But in private? All the paintings of Elizabeth show her so stern and regal. That’s a weakness of portraiture, I think. You only get a slice of the person. Or maybe only the propaganda surrounding the person. You have to look hard to find the person behind the facade. That’s also a strength of portraits. You learn about the period from what it does and doesn’t show.
Theatre lets you do that, maybe. Like in “Nell Gwynn,” and seeing Charles II. But are those true representations? Not really. I mean, true emotions yes but there is always something imagined, ambiguous. Still though, you can inject them with life.
I sometimes wonder if there is still a time and a place for theatre. I mean, we have maybe another 100 years before the environment gets really bad? We destroy the earth, we destroy each other over differences in class, race, or nationality. “I’m not gonna pay money to be told the word is shit.” (From “The Treatment”) But there has been a sense of impending doom in art and humanity forever! And yet this feels different. I don’t know if its true but supposedly the earth is supposed to get so hot that it will be unlivable within the next 50-60 years. If that’s true, like what the fuck? I don’t want to die from my body being cooked when I’m in my 70s. Arts are cut, services are cut, the rich keep getting richer.
And yet here I am in London in a pristine govt. funded gallery, looking at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, seeing the most interesting theatre of my life, having my faith in the power of theatre to enact change renewed!!!!!
Taking fascinating acting classes every week. Learning so much about relating to people in this world.
I keep thinking of Heidegger who said (I think), to paraphrase, basically life has no meaning but find the thing you love and pursue it passionately and you will give your life meaning. Notwithstanding he was a Nazi, not bad advice for your times.
Well a lot brought to mind by this portrait that’s for sure.”
Here are some more fun Tudor portraits I liked, before I go.