Portraiture from the late seventeenth century makes an important contribution to the historical record of the period. At first glance, these images seem to give us a sense of how people looked and dressed. But they also reveal how painters and sitters used visual symbols in their construction of an individual self, an image that could be circulated far beyond the walls of the room where the portrait was hanging. Engravings after portraits appeared as part of the growing print industry in the late seventeenth century. According to Professor Joseph Roach, the "public intimacy" created in part through visual circulation signals the emergence of the modern concept of celebrity during this period.
These portraits, however, also reveal how we think of these individuals today. When and how we choose to display these images reflects our changing understanding of their historical importance and their relationship to our own lives. Roach analyzed the 2001 exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, "Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II." That exhibit, he argued, "restaged the impious relationship of public intimacy and mimetic desire in room after room, paramour after paramour" as it juxtaposed the idea of the Merry Monarch with images of his well-known mistresses ("Celebrity Erotics" 216). Yesterday, a new exhibit opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London: "The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons." Instead of displaying images of the first actresses alongside their known lovers or romantic rivals, this exhibit positions them alongside each other, drawing a professional timeline from Nell Gwyn in the seventeenth century to Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter today. Neither of the historical narratives presented by these exhibits is more or less "true" ... but we might consider why we tell the stories we do at certain points in history.
I invite you to explore some of these images, those currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and those appearing on stage in Chicago next weekend.