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August 20, 2013

A Strong Woman and a Jamie Wyeth Portrait

CometJWyeth1My consciousness for all things Wyeth has been heightened since viewing and writing about the Shelburne Museum's exhibit "Wyeth Vertigo" earlier this summer. In fact, that exhibit taught me more than I previously knew about N.C. and Jamie Wyeth — father and son, respectively, of Andrew.

So a recent article in the New York Times about Jamie caught my eye, as did the accompanying luminous portrait he made of one Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig in 1963, when he was just 17 years old.

(For copyright reasons, I can't replicate the painting here, so you'll have to check it out at the Times site. Jamie Wyeth's "Comet," right, is courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.)

Alongside Jamie's portrait in the Times is a more conventional one of Taussig, from 1981, by Patric Bauernschmidt. And the difference between the two plays a part in a fascinating tale about permissible images of women — in this case, professional women — and how they have changed over a half century.

The story is also enlightening about the portrait-painting business itself, and how Jamie approached this commission. Not least, the article is about Taussig, who is no longer a household name but was famous in the 1940s.

Helen Taussig was a cardiologist — in fact, the chief of pediatric cardiology at Johns Hopkins — when she conceived of a way to save the lives of so-called "blue babies."  Her innovation helped to usher in, as the Times put it, "the era of cardiac surgery." A group of doctors who had worked with Taussig commissioned a portrait, intended to be hung alongside other "Hopkins luminaries" — all male.

Problem was, everybody hated Wyeth's painting of the good doctor, finding it "witchy," even "evil." Was it the glowing blue eyes? The dress slightly slipping off her shoulder? Did she look too glam, not serious enough? Dr. Taussig reportedly took the painting home, wrapped it in a towel and put it in the attic.

Now, five decades later, that picture is going to make a public debut in a Jamie Wyeth retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Its current owner, a medical archivist for Johns Hopkins named Nancy McCall, tells the Times it is the first time the institution received such a request for the painting.

What I find a key paragraph in this tale is this one:

In one sense, the second unveiling of Dr. Taussig’s portrait is a story about art — the right of an artist to depict a person as he sees her rather than how others, perhaps even the camera, might dictate she be seen. But the history of Dr. Taussig’s painting is also the story of the changing image of professional women.

The article details more history both before and since Taussing died in 1986. Including the fact that Wyeth returned just a handful of times to the commissioned portrait. At the end he wryly quotes John Singer Sargent: “A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”

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