Light falling on face

Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.

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With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.

The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.

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But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:

“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”

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Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/