In Portraits and Persons: A Philosophical Inquiry, Cynthia Freeland discusses how the ever-changing nature of portraiture, across locale and era, reflects “what it is to be a person.”  She defines the portrait artist as “an alchemist who seeks to make inert physical material ‘live’ and show us a person, an actual individual whose physical embodiment reveals psychological awareness, consciousness, and an inner emotional life.”  One of the more striking features of a portrait is its ability to capture the “essence” of a person, if only for a specific moment in time. While this momentary “essence” of an individual is elusive and highly susceptible to interpretation, portraiture remains a fascinating portal into the body, mind, and emotional life of another person. Arguably, portraits illuminate some aspect of “the self,” be it us or the self of another.
Along with considering portraiture a representation of some facet of a subject’s “inner life,” Freeland also details another crucial element: “the ability to pose or present oneself to be depicted in a representation.” As a singer, this struck me deeply – the self-awareness of posing both vocally and physically, of putting oneself forward to represent or be represented, of revealing some part of “the self” (either my own self, or an imagined character in a poem or libretto) through sound. It made me wonder – did most of my creative work as a singer involve “painting” portraits with my body, vocal sounds, and words? Often, I have felt the tension of being both the painter and the sitter. While I express interpretive agency through my performance, the audience’s gaze nevertheless maintains my position as an object to be viewed and perceived.
Portraits: The Self Illuminated explores the intersection of these tactile, linguistic, visual, and sonic portraits through the music of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Francis Poulenc, Barbara Strozzi, and Lacy Rose and the portraiture of Gwen John, John Duncan, Gustav Klimt, and Bernardo Strozzi. I have consciously paired each musical work with a visual portrait, some of which are known to have directly influenced the musical composition, while others are linked purely through my own imagination. Can they melt into one another to bring “the self” momentarily to the surface, creating that ever-elusive glimpse at the inner life of a human being?
1. Cynthia, Freeland. Portraits and Persons: A Philosophical Inquiry. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010, 1.
2. Freeland, Portraits and Persons, 74.
Selected Artwork from Portraits: The Self Illuminated
Portraits: The Self Illuminated is in partial fulfillment of the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Vocal Performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.