Saturday, September 1, 2012

My Beef with the Muir Portrait

Here's a slightly larger image of my banner photo.  It's a long way from professional quality, hacked together from a few random internet images using a free online photo editor (pixlr.com--actually not bad). Somehow when I shrank it pixelated even further *sigh.* I used this cartoon for Keynes' face and this engraving for Smith's face.  The base image for Smith's body actually came from Penn State's fabulous Electronic Classics edition of Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. I don't think it was intended to be a representation of Smith but I thought the little caricature captured the spirit of the author quite nicely.

Of course Keynes lived in the 20th century so photographs of him abound, but of Smith only two likenesses remain: a medallion made by James Tassie during Smith's lifetime and engravings based on that medallion, and and an image called the "Muir portrait" that hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland and was probably painted after Smith's death in 1790.


The Muir Portrait
I've got beef with the Muir portrait. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Smith was jolly and stout, as I've portrayed him, the hard lines of the Muir portrait suggest a dignified gravity that I cannot reconcile with the characterizations of Smith that survive. Does that man look like he could so excite himself during a conversation that he could accidentally walk into a tanning pit? Are that man's features "brightened by a smile of inexpressible benignity?" His smile is wry and hard, as if he finds his wisdom a burden. The Muir portrait does follow lines set by Tassie's engraving, but paints in a character that the bland engraving left to imagination, and prose records.

In general I've never been able to take formal portraits seriously. I much prefer thinking about historical figures they way I think about myself--as full of imperfections and improprieties, and occasionally wearing a silly mustache.


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