I suspect that those of my readers who have to commute to work or school using public transport tend to tune out, as it were, when they are on the bus or train, or walking down a city street, between their departure and arrival points. No one likes meeting the gaze of someone walking toward you on the sidewalk, if it can be avoided, or staring absent-mindedly at a fellow passenger across the aisle who suddenly startles you by staring back. Yet sometimes such encounters served as inspiration to artists, and for those of us who are not great artists ourselves, they may make us more aware of the fact that much of the deposit of great art produced in the West is, in fact, the accumulation of centuries of careful observations of our fellow human beings as they passed by.
As I both live and work in the city, I have a short commute every morning, lasting only about ten minutes. Being a creature of habit, not infrequently I catch the same bus each day, among the half-dozen or so different routes that pass through my neighborhood and head downtown. As a result, I often see the same people several times a week, though in truth I cannot say that I have ever spoken to any of them.
One such individual is a young man in his early 20’s, whose face looks exactly like that of the 12th century statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, the Patroness of Catalonia, which is reproduced below. Both he and the sculpture have the same oblong face, the same very long, thin nose with a decided point to it, and the same smallish, close-set, almond-shaped eyes with heavy lids, that one typically finds among Catalans. Of course, I do not know whether or not this fellow commuter is Catalan, but I would not be surprised to find out that he is.
Another is a lady of presumably Semitic origin, who I sometimes see on Sunday mornings on my way to church. She is probably in her 60’s or 70’s, but her face has the bone structure of the young and beautiful Nefertiti, wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, whose portrait bust in Berlin has captured the imagination of scholars and visitors for centuries. There is a similar elegant, quiet, and dignified way that this lady holds her head, as she gazes at the passing traffic and pedestrians, that is, frankly, breathtaking – though of course I would never presume to tell her so, for fear such an intrusion would be unwelcome or disturbing.
It is very easy to forget, when we visit museums, that the figures who appear in the paintings, sculptures, and illustrations preserved there were often based on real-life individuals. Sometimes the artist may have used a dummy, or no sort of model or prop at all, but other times one gets the very real sense that there is an actual person staring back at us. Take for example Raphael’s famous “Madonna of the Chair“, copies of which hang in just about every Catholic school in the country, though the original is in the Pitti Gallery in Florence. The story goes that when Raphael was out and about in Rome one day in 1514, he spotted a young woman holding a baby while seated in a doorway. He was so taken with the composition, that he stopped and sketched out a drawing of it on a barrel lid that was to hand, producing the finished painting later.
Whether this story is true or apocryphal is beside the point, for there are many examples in art history of unknown men and women that inspired artists to want to try to capture them in materials like stone or paint. One can think of similar stories from artists as different as Murillo and Toulouse-Lautrec, Michelangelo and Gauguin. That eye for seeing something in another’s face or person, and then being able to reproduce it in a plastic form, is a talent that unfortunately is not as lauded in the present day as it once was.
The more that you look at works of art representing people, even people dressed up as someone other than who they actually are, the more you realize that art surrounds you. You may not have the talent to create a beautiful work of art, but keep your eyes open, all the same. You could be seated across from someone on the train ride home who, when she turns her head in a certain way, suddenly puts you in mind of a Russian princess. Or you could be waiting in line for a taxi, and the older gentleman in front of you has what you imagine could be the stance and features of a philosopher from Ancient Greece. That realization may make you more appreciative of the human faces you see around you, both during that daily commute, and the next time you visit a gallery or museum.