Johannes/Jan van Eyck
The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami
National Gallery, London
Rembrandt van Rijn
The Jewish Bride (The Loving Couple)
by Suzaan Boettger
They say that John Kerry has a horsy face. His long cheeks and toothy smile spurred the Washington Post to call the presidential candidate "separate but equine," while other rightwing "humorists" have called him an "equine impersonator" and compared "the equine ticket" to "Mr. Ed and My Little Pony." (Actually, John Edwards does have a cute, coltish quality.)
Bloggers have complained about Kerrys "equine smile" and, comparing his face to Andrew Jacksons, have claimed that Kerry looks "less equiline than equine" (whether this is a pun on aquiline or a spelling error is uncertain). In Time magazine, Joe Klein went so far as to assign a mood to that horsiness and described the Democratic candidates "equine dignity."
That seems right. Klein is on to something with the connection between a human "horse face" and dignity -- it comes from good stock in art history.
In the equation of male "equininity" and character, the mold was cast in the 15th century by Johannes van Eyck. His Netherlandish Double Portrait shows Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife holding hands, their mutual loyalty indicated by the small dog standing at their feet. With a single candle lit overhead and the husband raising his right hand, the scene suggests a ceremony for which the artists signature above the rear mirror serves as an official witness.
Beneath the wide horizontal brim of his velvet hat, Arnolfinis long plain face with high cheekbones has been called equine. Originally from Lucca, he seems to be doing well in Bruges, and wears a voluminous fur-trimmed coat. Beside him, his pretty wife bunches her green gown over her abdomen as if emphasizing her fertility (no, she is not pregnant). In this symbolic milieu, Van Eycks realistic depiction of his subjects long-faced homeliness evokes character -- the reserve of an accomplished man who doesnt have anything to prove.
Similarly, Rembrandts Jewish Bride is a marriage portrait centering on a tender joining of hands. Out of the Baroque darkness, the grooms gown seems to be of spun gold and his brides abundant jewelry glistens. Like Arnolfini, the groom has a long, aging "horse" face. Both men clearly display wealth, young wives and, importantly, gravitas. Their mixture of affluence and homeliness suggests a formal reserve, a dignity.
So even if Kerrys horse face spurs galloping equine analogies, that very soberness -- and yes, his not-classically-handsome visage -- connect to art historical models of clearly successful albeit horse-faced men of character. (Better that, surely, than to be likened to the other end of a horse.) And such a reading suggests that, looks aside, on the question of character, Kerrys equine dignity may allow him the last (horse) laugh.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is author of Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (University of California Press).