Today’s post comes from Josh Schwartz, class of 2018 and Art Center Student Docent.

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815 Portrait of a Man, 1781 Oil on canvas Purchase, Pratt Fund, Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Fund, and Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund 1993.9

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815
Portrait of a Man, 1781
Oil on canvas. Purchase, Pratt Fund, Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Fund, and Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund. 1993.9

In the 1967 musical Hair the cast sings “Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair/ Flow it, show it/ Long as God can grow it/ My hair.” In the show, the characters’ hair represents their freedom, their unwillingness to conform, and their bohemian lifestyle. However, the implications of hair aren’t limited to this musical; in fact, hairstyle usually implies a lot about the time within which it was popular. In the American Stories 1800-1950 exhibition, portraits from different eras come into direct contact with each other. The differences between them can be looked at through the lens of hair.

In John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of a Man from 1781, Copley depicts a man seated at half length, turned at three-quarters view. He is peering out at the viewer, his features framed by the grey wig that sits atop his head. In much of the 18th century, aristocrats and the aspiring merchant classes tried to look artificial, to remove themselves from their natural appearance as an act of refinement. This was achieved through the wig, which became popular among men in the late 17th century and with women in the late 18th century. The hair-do was inspired by the Rococo movement, getting across its unrealism, but the wig also allowed an element of formality, of being done up and dignified. Copley isn’t painting this man how he naturally is, but rather how he wants to be seen.

William Weaver, American, 1759 – 1817
Portrait of Matthew Vassar as a Young Man, Nd
Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Henry Noble MacCracken. 1972.41

Eventually, hairstyles moved from the Rococo-inspired to the Neoclassically-inspired, and then, in the 19th century, they became inspired by Romanticism. Romanticism favors the grandness and wildness of nature, the beauty, mystery, and sadness of the world, and a distancing from the increasingly industrialized world. William Weaver’s 19th-century Portrait of Matthew Vassar as a Young Man is a perfect example of the way the Romantic aesthetic influenced the depiction of men’s hair. Vassar’s hair is being whipped forward by the wind, as if a great breeze is blowing, signifying the motion and greatness of the world and the sitter’s sensitivity to nature.

As industrialization and modernization continued, hair became influenced by the media—by magazines and advertisements and Hollywood. The slicked-back hairstyle, prominently featured in Milton Bellin’s 1937 Self-Portrait, was influenced by a sense of toughness, of heightened masculinity; the hairstyle was especially popular among Hollywood actors. Those feelings of masculinity are particularly present in Bellin’s portrait, if tempered by a slight Bohemian looseness befitting an artist.

Hair says a lot. In portraits, it’s one of the many ways for the viewer to get a sense of mood and intimacy. In American Stories, paintings are curated in a way that makes the viewer question history, but also see a connected timeline. Copley’s Portrait of a Man, Weaver’s Portrait of Matthew Vassar as a Young Man, and Bellin’s Self-Portrait can be looked at in conversation with each other to understand the changes in hairstyle, which in turn clarifies the historical context.

Milton Bellin, American, 1913-1997
Self-Portrait, 1937
Egg tempera on panel Gift from the Estate of Milton Bellin 1998.7.1

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