This morning as I perused various art news sites, I came across the striking image of a man seated in a leather armchair, painted in cool shades of blues and greens. The image was a new portrait of Sir Andrew John Wiles, who came to international fame back in the early 1990’s for having proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the thorniest problems in mathematics. The work was commissioned for the primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and has just gone on display there. I was thrilled – but ultimately not surprised – to discover that the painting is by my friend, artist Rupert Alexander.
As the artist explained in the Gallery’s press release, the unusual color palette relates the work to the field of mathematics itself. “I wanted to convey the cerebral world Sir Andrew inhabits,” he noted, “but rather than doing so by furnishing the composition with books or the obligatory blackboard of equations, I tried to imply it simply through the light and atmosphere. Mathematics appears to me an austere discipline, so casting him in a cool, blue light seemed apt.”
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in front of a computer screen or beneath fluorescent task lighting will immediately recognize the tonalities in this painting. The almost aquatic colors that surround us when we are up late at night, working on a project or even just catching up on social media, differ substantially from the more yellow-toned hues cast by incandescent lightbulbs or sunlight. These cool colors are those of a present yet distant environment, one of significant human thought and reason, but which remains ultimately somewhat mysterious to most of us. That ethereal quality, of the mind pursuing the unknown, is difficult to put across effectively in paint, yet in this case, the portrait succeeds handsomely in evoking that world of the mind.
What is also particularly striking about the piece is the fact that the artist took a great risk here, in going outside of what one might reasonably expect both in a commissioned portrait, and indeed from the artist’s own work. While employing the same highly skilled technique that reminds the viewer of premiere Old Master painters such as Velázquez, here he goes out on a limb to create something indicating his willingness to try something different – not so much to show that he can do it, but because it actually makes sense in context. For note how, without including a single visual cue as to what in fact Sir Andrew does with his time, by his careful choice of colors the artist immediately causes us to conclude, “Aha! This is a man of science.” That is truly a remarkable feat.
“Sir Andrew Wiles” is the first, but one expects not the last, portrait by Rupert Alexander to enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Next time you find yourself in London, do drop by and have a look for yourself. And my hearty congratulations to the artist both on this achievement, and for creating a truly compelling and well-thought-out work of art.
(L to R) Artist Rupert Alexander; Sir Andrew Wiles; Director of the National Portrait Gallery Dr. Nicholas Cullinan