Sadness Ax\d the Art of Portraiture_
Because the expression of sadness can be so slight, it crosses that imaginary line that separates expressions of crises and extremity from those that seem more commonplace, more part of a long-term mood. Sadness would not seem out of place in a formal portrait the way fear or surprise might.
It would certainly have a compelling effect. Part of the fascination of a portrait is our interest in drawing conclusions from the face about personality of the sitter. This does not happen if an extreme expression is portrayed, as we often see intense expressions as temporary events, in a sense masking the person beneath. With slight sadness, we feel the personality lies much closer to the surface. (Even a perfectly neutral, relaxed face will inspire all sorts of conjecture about the personality of the subject. The artist has limited input about the form such conjecture might take; with no expression visible, a face becomes a blank slate for the observer to project on: compassion, anger, intelligence, passivity— whatever mood the observer might be feeling at the time. )
Extreme expressions are responses to extreme events. Passionate faces full of anguish or anger appear in narrative, action paintings. Portraits, focusing as they usually do on individuals in a neutral setting, suggest a quieter expression. A touch of melancholy hovers over all the following faces. It is an expression that seems at home in a portrait, suggesting the course of thought of someone left to oneself, to one's own sad musings.
When do we cross the borderline from "slightly sad" to "neutral"? This portrait by Thomas Eakins is on the margin between the two and is capable of being viewed either way, depending on who is doing the viewing and in what particular mood the viewer is. Many of Eakins's portraits have a similar air of vague, undefined distress about them—part of the reason we find them so fascinating (and part of the reason he was not a sought-after portrait painter). Here the puzzle revolves, as usual, around the brow and mouth—is the brow on the right upturned; is the mouth slightly pressed upward from below?
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