Faces all about the room and you'd likely be lying to yourself if you didn't admit feeling that they were sometimes looking at you looking at them.
Not faces of Waguespacks or Piazzas or Glapions, though. These are faces forever locked into the cheerfulness or severity or concern that they give off today and tomorrow and as long as oils and acrylics have the power to preserve. These are faces from paintings of the National Portrait Gallery, on loan to the New Orleans Museum of Art for the next couple of weeks, and it's oddly delicious to share a room with them.
There is always the matter of making eye contact with the human face staring out from its oily perch. During the hours of sitting for his portrait, did the sitter ever wonder at the living faces who would pause to study it and wonder at the character, the choices, the lusts that would linger behind those faces?
Then there's the vanity. Because surely there is vanity inside every frame; can anyone not imagine his importance as he sits for a formal portrait? Certainly not this man: T.S. Eliot, utter and irreversible defeat showing easily through the impervious mask. A pack of cards laid out tellingly in a hand of solitaire. The background is shelves of his books, but their colors and their titles are dull and pessimistic, and it is not hard to see the origins of Prufrock.
There is resignation, too, in the profiled gaze of M.F.K. Fisher, but a higher resignation. She won much of her fame writing about food and its significance for love and life, but her body is light and swathed in casket black. Yet this is a brilliantly colored portrait with a dark plum wall and a cluster of delicate pink roses that brackets the sitter -- and, no, I am not a longtime defender of pink roses. But the dominant color is grey, the sparkling grey of Fisher's hair, cropped in the style of Joan of Arc and my grandma.
Fisher's hands are well done, too, which is not a given in portraits. Many of these don't even include hands, and several that do shouldn't have bothered. There are hardly any smiles in portraits, either, though some come close.
Surprises are a hallmark of all human experience, and one of the best ones in this exhibit is that of Col. Davy Crockett. No coonskin caps or superhero squints here, only a face atop some standard Congressional clothing. A face of manly beauty, a handsomeness that can do most anything it wants. Except maybe hide a smile that seems very close by.
It's not a smile exactly that plays around the face of Orestes Brownson. It's a big face, and it looks very interested in what you have to say. The plaque says he was a 19th century thinker who tried several religions -- including one of his own -- before settling on Roman Catholic mysticism. But the mysticism doesn't dominate this portrait; what does is a look wrapped into warm, dark colors that suggest awareness of the Joke of God, that even if a thing is incomprehensible, it can very much matter.
Hanging side by side are great Congressional cohorts. Looking right, Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser," showing his need to be liked, his hope that others need it, too. Next to him, facing left, John C. Calhoun, the underdog dogmatist, the look of the furious rooster who has just spied a new rooster in his yard. No one could see this painting and not understand John C. Calhoun better.
Generals like Winfield Scott and George Patton address their audiences full-faced and satisfied with their time onstage in the long-running theater of war. Gen. William T. Sherman is different. He looks away, this general who said, "War is hell," and his painter has caught the hellish impact of it on this man, in the ragged whiskers, in the dark eyes locked into what the Marines call "the thousand-yard stare." Sherman's is the fate of everyone who's grabbed a wolf by the ears. He cannot hold on; he dare not let go.
Then there are the dames. The most arresting are actress Tallulah Bankhead and society maven Elsa Maxwell.
Chain-smoking nympho Tallulah, pursed red lips, eyes faraway blue. Tallulah the clown who took herself seriously.
More complicated is Maxwell, sitting at what seems to be the end of yet another long and festive evening, the hard work of play loudly written in the sag of her cheeks. Elsa sits in a bright red dress, but the mass of brightness and redness are dismissed by one spaghetti strap at the top of that dress. Exhausted, it has slipped from the slumping Maxwell shoulder, and the look on her face says, "Yeah, it's me, the short, fat fanny of Keokuk, Iowa, and even if I'm a little burnt, I'm still the toast of New York."
Two gals, each a mistress of sham. One shamed by her sham, one worn out but proud of hers.
After a time, it's time to check the time. A guard looks at his watch and then at the face in front of him. He looks again. What is he looking at? Does he think he can actually see the life, instead? The guard keeps looking.