These two portraits are of the same woman. Her name was Helen Brooke Taussig, and she was a famed cardiologist who did ground-breaking work in pediatric cardiac surgery. So which one do you think has never been shown in public?
The one of the left is of someone I’d like to meet. It’s by Jamie Wyeth, and was commissioned by Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was head of the children’s cardiology clinic, in 1963. But it was never hung alongside all the portraits of male doctors on the hospital walls. It was called “witchy.” And “evil.” Taussig was seen as “scowling.” This was not how a doctor should be portrayed. Especially not a female doctor.
Fast forward to 1975, when Johns Hopkins tried again, with the portrait on the right — someone I have no interest in meeting. It’s an utterly standard institutional portrait, down to the single-strand pearl necklace, the tightly reassuring smile to go with the tightly curled hair, and of course the white coat. This was apparently how a woman doctor “should” look. Conventional, bland, and “reassuring.” Taussig herself is absent, replaced by a totally uninteresting cipher. Yet even this piece of artistic pap didn’t make it onto the Hopkins wall of fame.
It only took fifty years, but now the Wyeth portrait of her is finally to be publicly shown — not, to what should be its shame, at Johns Hopkins, but at a retrospective of Jamie Wyeth’s work next year at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
I’ve never been a particular fan of Wyeth’s, but this portrait is powerful. It’s a portrayal of an intense, determined woman deeply committed to her work. Slightly disheveled, because who has time for perfect grooming when there’s important work to be done? Serious, because her work is serious. And per the New York Times, “steely-eyed.”
But I don’t see steely eyes. I see a directness, an openness that I admire. I see a woman deeply committed to the seriousness of life. I see someone unafraid to be her own intelligent, determined, vulnerable self. And I appreciate both Wyeth’s effort to reach out and see Taussig on her own terms, and her allowing him to do that. For both of them, that took courage — exactly the kind of courage that’s necessary to do ground-breaking work, in any field.
And so I think about how we portray women, still, today. The constant “Smile!” demands of photographers — demands never made of men. The emphasis on make-up and clothes. The obsessive focus on how we “look” — not how we look at the camera or the painter, but on how we look to others, how we will be judged by the court of appearances and surfaces. Do we look “attractive”? Do we look “feminine”? Do we look as we “should” look?
It’s our choice. We can surrender to all these demands and end up as blandly uninteresting as the right-hand portrait of Dr Taussig. Or, as she did with Wyeth, we can find the courage to be ourselves — to look into the eyes of others with integrity and self-respect and say, “This is me. Here I am.”