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.”
I have to agree.
The hair perfectly done by some pro, and the lab coat to match the same color. It’s all so 1950s.
Can I share this on FB?
Sent from my iPhone
Of course, Rachel! Just use the FB button below.
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I rather think the picture in her Wikipedia entry does her more justice than either of these:
I think you may be right, but I also suspect you wouldn’t see as much in that photograph if you hadn’t seen Wyeth’s portrait of her first. Thanks much for the link, though — I should have included it in the post, and will add it now. Always good to have good readers as editors!
It is funny how on the weakened down picture her eyes are still questioning the looker on, at least to me; her eyes in the Wyeth painting are visionary, way beyond the watcher; in the flattened down pic they are the cool eyes of the diagnostician. I think overall she was a not comfortable woman to be with just for a chat.. but one to go to when you were in trouble adn needed to think.
Thanks for letting me know about her.
I like a lot this; “…to look into the eyes of others with integrity and self-respect and say “This is me. Here i am”. Men and women, but, speccially women, we all could learn her honest way of being.
I like yours too after watching your TED conference. That’s why i subscribed your blog. Women with your courage teach us there are other ways, other options, such as to be honest with oneself and others
I do happen to be a fan of Wyeth in the first place, but your points go far beyond the specifics of this artwork and into the more general concept of how one defines a sense of “self”. Reminds me of the book “Writing a Woman’s Life” by Heilbrun (which the blog author gifted me some years ago, I might add). Great post.
Thanks for making the connection, Nancy!
It’s clearly time for me to read the book again. Just checked the link for Amazon (below) and noted the description:
“In this modern classic, Carolyn G. Heilbrun builds an eloquent argument demonstrating that writers conform all too often to society’s expectations of what women should be like at the expense of the truth of the female experience. Drawing on the careers of celebrated authors including Virginia Woolf, George Sand, and Dorothy Sayers, Heilbrun illustrates the struggle these writers undertook in both work and life to break away from traditional “male” scripts for women’s roles.”
I can’t believe this but I never for a moment thought about the fact that women are expected to smile in a photograph and men aren’t? What, we must look nice, kind and pleasant all the time while men can be serious and thoughtful? oh no!
I am hardly the greatest fan of Jamie Wyeth but this is a great example of how a work by a real artist is so much better than the hack job. (The second portrait takes away any character from the woman.)
will post 2 quotes from John Singer Sargent about portraits;
“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” (I once saws this quote written as ‘pawtrait’)
“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.”
‘Pawtrait’ works for me!
Loving this entry, I feel this one does justice for me since I’m 18 and still try to stay away from make-up, it’s just a problem I have, I feel its a false facade
Please check out this youtube video,Katie Makkal is spot-on on how I feel
Dynamite! Thanks — L.