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  • Auteurs as Autobiographers: Images by Jo Spence and Cindy Sherman
  • James Guimond (bio)

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

. . .

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”


Long before Eliot’s Prufrockian persona worried about how his “face” would appear to his contemporaries, other men and women found ways to create autobiographical narratives to protect or preserve their identities from the gazes of unknown, hostile, or unwelcome others. The advantage of autobiography, writes Georges Gusdorf, is that “no one can know better than I what I have thought, what I have wished; I [End Page 573] alone have the privilege of discovering myself from the other side of the mirror. . . . Others, no matter how well intentioned, are forever going wrong. . . . No one can better do justice to himself than the interested party, and it is precisely [this need] to do away with misunderstandings, to restore an incomplete or deformed truth” (“a formulated phrase”), that causes autobiographers to tell their stories (35–36). Such stories are not confined to words. As Paul Jay points out, there can be a “creative, constitutive relationship” between images and a person’s identity in autobiographical works because “visual memory, the ‘reading’ of images . . . can often be integral to the construction of [an] identity” (191). Thus the talented, like Goya and Rembrandt, can make eloquent autobiographical images of themselves with paintings and other visual media. The untalented can commission artists and—starting in the nineteenth century—photographers to collaborate with their wishes to prepare faces they consider “true” images of themselves. Sometimes such portraits suggest more than the sitter’s or patron’s bare likeness, for they may also contain brief, coded narratives which will tell later generations what he/she accomplished. And, when one adds the dimension of gender, there are often significant differences in the narratives suggested or implied by these images.

There are, for example, two late eighteenth-century paintings which now hang ten feet apart in Princeton University’s Art Museum: John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Elkanah Watson,” and Henry Bainbridge’s “Portrait of the Hartley Family.” Copley’s portrait, made in 1782, shows Watson wearing a handsome red coat and holding his hat in his right hand and a sheaf of papers in his left as he stands by a table with a book, an ink well, a pen and more papers on it. On one side of Watson there is an image of a ship under sail, seen as if through a window. The ship, the papers, the books—all hint at individual activities and accomplishments that Watson achieved in a public world of acclaim or strife—a treaty negotiated, journeys made, books or essays written. We can’t be sure what exactly these achievements were, but we do know that they must have been Watson’s.

Bainbridge’s “Portrait of the Hartley Family” was made in the same era that Copley painted Elkanah Watson; Bainbridge’s dates are 1743– 1812, and his work is painted in the same neo-classical style. But the story it implies is quite different. Three generations of women faced the painter and now us, a grandmother, a mother, and her two daughters [End Page 574] who look like they are approximately six and thirteen or fourteen years old. The older daughter is holding two roses, and a small dog watches the family from one corner of the painting. All three generations of Hartley women are elegantly dressed in late eighteenth-century finery, which indicates their class, but there are no suggestions of individual achievements or accomplishments by any of these women. Nor has the Museum tried to discover what their first names were. What was important to Bainbridge and perhaps to these women (or to the male Hartley who may have commissioned the painting) is that they reproduced new Hartleys, continued the cycle of births...

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pp. 573-591
Launched on MUSE
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