Benjamin Riley at The New Criterion:
The portrait is meant to give us a direct line into the soul of its sitter, or at least we’re told. It’s meant to expose underlying truths about the subject, using physiognomy to express that which cannot be gleaned from the subject’s name alone.
And yet, why is it that whenever I view portraits that go anywhere beyond the shoulders, all I can focus on are the hands? An old art historian told me years ago that the true mark of an artist’s draughtsmanship is his ability to render hands, due to the difficulty in producing the form, especially the digits. Whether true or not, this bit of received wisdom has lodged itself firmly in my brain, nagging even the finest works. (I’m reminded of Gainsborough’s portraits, which for all their virtues can feature hands that are almost sickly.)
And so it is with the Morgan Library’s new portrait drawings show, “Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso,” on view through September 8, 2015. The show, composed of fifty-one works, all but four of which are from the permanent collection, takes a wide view of the concept of portraiture, which is to say, there’s no shortage of hands.