They are a ghostly population. They have no identity, no heritage, no family. Nameless and winsome, they stare from rooms or gardens bound with sculpted wood. Their eyes reflect the artist’s gaze, their own secrets and the fey knowledge of a story that has not yet been told.
Their names and titles might have once been written on the canvas, by a brush that was bound with only a few silken hairs. Shields quartered into patterns and designs that spoke an ancient heraldic language might have hung in a corner. Allegories painted along hillsides, played like a surreal fete galante. Battles tucked into the background, violent and silent.
Unknown Man, style of Jacob Huysmans, 1717
These things would have given a coy hint as to the subject’s identity or accomplishments. But often the stories lie buried under centuries of varnish the color and consistency of syrup.
But there could be other promptings too: armor lying discarded like unsuccessful letters at a warrior’s feet, a bower of curving vines, architecture rising from pastel mists,
Unknown Man, by Isaac Oliver, 1595
and once – tantalizingly – a metaphor of flame rising like a wall behind a dark-eyed, ardent courtier.
Unknown Man Standing Before A Wall Of Fire, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1590’s
And yet they try to communicate with us, to escape their silent anonymity and reach beyond the two dimensions of their unsatisfactory worlds. As a shadow is never black but actually full of color a portrait is never a complete enigma, for it possesses a bounty of allusions.
The portrait was the haven of the aristocracy. Jewels, glittering ornaments that reflected light long since extinguished were eloquent centerpieces that spoke of the wearer’s affluence.
Unknown Lady In A Plumed Headdress, unknown artist, 1633
They wrapped around throats, dangled from waists and hung from ears like luminous satellites that had been captured and contained. Pearls were especially costly, but the wealthy wore them in thick ropes, were harnessed in capelets planted with seed pearls and wore them nestled in gardens of metallic lace. One would think the oysters happily scattered their nacreous offspring into the waiting hands of jewelers before accepting the grain of sand that would start the painful, nurturing process all over again.
Unknown Woman, by Cornelius Johnson, 1636
This lavish, uncomfortable dress made a mockery of the body’s natural silhouette…only the lower classes dressed for comfort, allowing them to accomplish their ugly tasks quickly and efficiently. The aristocracy dressed for its lovely agony, with only their hands allowed freedom of motion – to finger a pair of perfumed gloves or to let a chain flow like a flaxen rivulet.
Unknown Woman, by unknown artist, 1570
But if dress did not indicate a class, it could signify a calling, such as a bright rose tucked inside of an unlaced bodice:
Unknown Woman With A Rose, by Dmitry Levitzky, 1788
Or the déshabillé costume of a shepherdess, a dimpled arm draped about the neck of a member of her flock:
Unknown Woman, studio of Sir Peter Lely, circa 1675
Sometimes gems would be cradled in a sitter’s hand, as if to draw the viewer’s attention to it.
Unknown Lady with a rose and a jewel-encrusted diadem, in the manner of Gerrit von Honthorst, 18th c.
Engraved within the yielding, opaque facet, as if it was a tiny canvas, would be portraits, symbols or stories from myth or religion. Pelicans, hares, dogs, cats all spoke in zoological code. Intaglios and cameos of Minerva, Apollo, Zeus and Venus boldly claimed a relationship to the wearer. Images of the Virgin and Child, stories of saints and martyrs were carved on stones which the owner wore proudly as if they were vindicated from their profane sumptuousness.
Portrait of an unknown Man Holding A Medallion, by Sandro Botticelli, 1480’s
Unknown Woman, in the style of Holbein, 1540-1560
Occasionally, however, it is not the scenery – not the allegory or battle kindling in the distance, or even the clothes thick with decoration and parable that is the viewer’s most trustworthy confidante. Sometimes the secrets are kept – and revealed – in the expression. It is up to the wit of the artist to portray those mysteries – in the dark eyes as lowering and perilous as an oncoming storm,
Unknown Woman, by Ivan Kramskoi, 1883
in a face dimpled with barely concealed mirth,
Unknown Woman (the ‘Turkish Slave’) by Parmigianino early 1530’s
or in one overcome with a devouring melancholy.
Unknown Man, by Moretto da Brescia, 1542
These extraordinary people had decided to have their emotions preserved for eternity, rather than the proofs of a successful life well spent. They mock us, they share joy with us, they seek our sympathy: but most of all they communicate.
The art world, in a fit of pique, has given this impenetrable society its own surname: ‘unknown’. Experts, teachers, scholars have thrown up their hands in frustration; cancelling all research, they have instead christened each resident with the title that symbolized their investigative failure.
But there are those who have the leisure to wonder. They look deeply; they retrieve meaning from the depths, a fish that shows twisting and luminous as it is drawn to the surface. They are attracted to the humanity of the portrait, the philosopher’s stone of artistic endeavor. They are not content to abandon a face pining for recognition. And most of all they remain tempted by the lure of the unknown.