Book lovers will be able to put a face with long-treasured words at a mixed media exhibition of 100 portraits at Firestone Library, Princeton University. “The Author’s Portrait: O, could he but have drawne his Wit,” is on view in the Rare Books Gallery through July 5. Drawn from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ vast holdings in portraiture, the gathering of famous literary faces spans 500 years of the wordsmith’s art.

The artfully assembled collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, marble sculptures, and plaster life and death masks serves as an agreeable introduction to the respective physiognomies of writers whose words have been long been part of the western literary canon. Such notables as Dante Aligheri, Charles Baudelaire, Honore de Balzac, Geoffrey Chaucer, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Laurence Sterne, Mark Twain, Virgil, and Walt Whitman are among the featured faces. The collection also functions nicely as a fine art display with a generous sampling of works by artists who were often as well known and distinguished as their subjects.

Works by a star-studded roster of art world worthies, including Leonard Baskin, William Blake, Constantin Brancusi, Julia Margaret Cameron Jean-Antoine Houdon, Edouard Manet, John Sloan and Auguste Rodin share space with often equally gifted lesser-knowns and unknowns. In the process, the instructive collection serves as a virtuoso demonstration of the graphic possibilities of the portrait — a lesson in artistic style and the narrative potential of the human face.

While imposing in scope and scale, Julie Mellby, graphic arts curator of the Rare Books and Special Collections, says the assembled images are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to portrait holdings at Firestone. “We have more author portraits in the Princeton University Library than the system is able to count, since most contemporary books come with a portrait. The computer stops at 10,000. I have over 1,000 separate prints in graphic arts designated as a portrait of an author. Others are not categorized at all.”

With an embarrassment of graphic riches at her disposal, Mellby says that it was concern with artistic quality rather than subject that informed her choice of work for the exhibition. “I wanted to look at the art and artistry in the portraits. I was looking for the most beautiful works in the collections.”

And beautiful they are. Mellby has transformed the library into an effectively installed museum gallery where cases filled with rare and venerable books serve as a warm backdrop for an array of five centuries of eloquent artistic style.

The exhibition subtitle also makes a significant contribution to the viewing experience. Drawn from a poem by Ben Jonson regarding the portrait of Shakespeare engraved for the First Folio (1623), it examines the potential weight of word and image, building an interesting platform from which to consider the assembled works.

O, could he but have drawne his Wit As well in brasse, as he hath hit? His face; the Print would then surpasse All, that was ever writ in brasse. But, since he cannot, Reader, looke? Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

And that is only the beginning when it comes to instructive verse. Snippets of poems and frontispiece epigraphs enrich many of the labels that accompany the images, adding yet another telling literary dimension to the collection.

Mellby says that collecting the words was as challenging as assembling the images. “I looked at more books than you could imagine. The poetry is almost as much fun and sometimes as instructive as the art. Epigraphs are so charming and their meaning adds to the experience.”

Sojourner Truth’s carts de visite, for example, remind us of the power of the portrait, saying, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” The lines that accompany a watercolor of George Gordon, Lord Byron asks, “What is the end of Fame? ‘tis but to fill A certain portion of uncertain Paper.” John Milton, on the other hand, made note of the downside of portraiture (originally written in Greek to spare the artist’s feelings), saying, “finding here no jot of me, my friends, Laugh at the botching artist’s mis-attempt.”

Shadows and substance mingle nicely in this collection. Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) photographic self-portrait joins with portraits of and by William Blake and a pair of watercolors by Stephen Longstreet to remind us that for some authors, creating an image was as important as the word. Whimsy, too, is in evidence here with Longstreet’s rainbow-hued interior featuring Colette. And Alexander Calder’s “portrait” of James Joyce takes advantage of artistic license to translate a distinguished author into a witty abstraction of lines and spirals. Technical virtuosity is also in evidence in an anamorphic etching in which a portrait of Jules Verne, concealed in the complex construction of a landscape, can only be realized as a reflection in a metal cylinder.

A generous sampling of photographs documents the narrative potential of the camera when it comes to portraiture. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of her neighbor, Alfred Lord Tennyson and another of Robert Browning join with a photo of Beatrix Potter, taken by her father, to mark some of the earliest efforts to use a camera to document persona. Elsa Dorfman’s portraits of Robert Lowell and Jorge Luis Borge demonstrate the camera’s ability to artfully capture and convey the richness of persona.

The portrait as message bearer is aptly illustrated by images of abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass; works that illustrate the ways in which inexpensive, mechanically produced portraits were utilized in the service of moral and political goals. And photographs of African-American church and political leaders speak of sophisticated application of the visual vocabulary of power with a more complex story to tell. In Thomas Oldham Barlow’s engraving, Washington Irving is shown in the company of distinguished friends; among them, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And John Sloan’s etching, which captures Eugene O’Neill at a table in a crowded Greenwich Village saloon, is a fine reminder of the narrative power of the Ashcan School.

In fact, range of artistic style figures importantly here. A line etching of James Baldwin by Leonard Baskin is a telling example of less being eloquently more. Don Bachardy’s pencil, pen and ink, and wash portrait of his friend, Stephen Spender, functions as a lavish example of the expressive power of the fine line. And a 19th century color woodblock portrait of Ono No Komachi, a 9th century Japanese poet, provides a classic example of Meiji style.

Final thoughts on this appealing and instructive collection could easily be borrowed from the verse that accompanies the engraving of Robert Burton.

Now last of all to fill a place, Presented is the Authors face. His minde no art can well expresse, That by his writings you may guesse…

Mellby says, however, that in the most successful images, the portrait gives the viewer a lot more than a well-rendered face. “We expect a lot from portraits. We really want to learn more than what the subject looked like. We want to know who they were. I think there are quite a few works in the exhibition that do that.”

Art Exhibit, Princeton University, Firestone Library Gallery. On view through July 5. “The Author’s Portrait: O, Could He But Have Drawne His Wit,” an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, and death masks dating from 1489 to 1989 that were formed over long conversations between artist and sitter. A lavishly illustrated catalogue, which includes the full text of instructive labels, is available. Gallery tours Sunday, March 21, and Friday, May 7, at 3 p.m. 609-258-1470 or www.princeton.edu.

Open to the public Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and weekends, noon to 5 p.m.

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