A little levity wouldn’t go astray. I mean, don’t you think? Things can get too serious in the halls of our great art museums. Thank God for those Dutch paintings showing drunkards falling about in taverns, for Daumier’s twitchy politicians festering in their own corruption and for Hogarth’s visions of witless aristocrats, yawning servants and overturned chairs. Thank God, too, for this painting by Joseph Ducreux at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Ducreux (1735-1802) gave France’s King Louis XVI the first glimpse of his future wife, Marie Antoinette: He had been sent to Vienna to paint her portrait, in miniature, before their marriage. The result was such a hit that Ducreux was appointed First Painter to the Queen. Twenty-four years later, he drew the last portrait of Louis XVI before the king’s beheading.
This picture, however, is neither regal nor tragic. It is a self-portrait — one of many in which Ducreux (who felt great affection, one suspects, for his mirror) affects unusual poses and tries out facial expressions intended to communicate jealousy, surprise, mockery or, in this case, fatigue.
But it’s more than just fatigue, isn’t it? That is what’s so wonderful about it. Ducreux’s gesture, his whole comportment, is so extreme, so over-the-top that it leaps out of its own category to become something unique — not quite caricature, not quite burlesque and more full-throated than a mere studio exercise.
The pseudoscience of physiognomy — the idea that faces reveal character, intelligence (think “highbrow,” “lowbrow”), hereditary predisposition and even criminality — had widespread currency well before Ducreux’s time. Building on ideas promulgated by the Italian Giambattista della Porta in the early 17th century, the French painter and pedagogue Charles Le Brun provided a guide to an extensive range of facial expressions. These became the basis of a French art school exercise called the “tête d’expression” — studies of faces intended to evoke particular states of mind.
Physiognomy was popularized during Ducreux’s lifetime by Johann Kaspar Lavater, who wrote a tract illustrated in the English edition with drawings by William Blake and Johann Heinrich Fuseli of various facial “types” set against neutral backgrounds. It became available in a pocket edition and was much sought after by artists. Some of Ducreux’s contemporaries, such as the Swiss sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, became fascinated by extreme expressions. Ducreux — though not so far-out as Messerschmidt — was inclined to push into unconventional territory.
Here, you can feel the almost jaw-dislocating force of his yawn. The extravagant raised arms with their weirdly clenched fingers seem to burst out of the picture’s space in diagonally opposed directions. His uncovered mouth and portly belly, which pushes obscenely out of the frame, both signal a marvelous indifference to propriety.
Whenever I’ve seen Ducreux’s self-portrait in the galleries, it has been surrounded by startled admirers. They laugh, they take pictures. They often feel impelled to stretch and mock-yawn in front of it or even re-create the picture at home. (You can find creative examples of the phenomenon on social media). It’s as if Ducreux’s ungainly pose unleashes an urge we all feel to wriggle out of society’s expectation that we conform to certain standards of physical decorum, like little schoolboys who rock back on their chairs or teenage girls performing TikTok moves behind the teacher’s back. There are moments in life when you need to just take up more space.
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Getty Museum. It is in Los Angeles, not New York. This version has been updated.
A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”
Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.