Ralph Hamilton’s Faces


Lloyd Schwartz

“…at the end of each century, Boston has had a portrait painter of great interpretive gifts—Copley in the 18th, Sargent in the 19th, and, I’d argue, Hamilton in the 20th…. He is creating one of those invaluable records that tell what a historical period was about.”

David Bonetti, The Boston Phoenix

“What the hell is this,” Bea Arthur bellowed, when he shoved his camera up against her nose, “an ad for facial hair?”

He always painted his portraits from his own pictures.

Twenty clicks. Thirty clicks. The eventual photos largely unrecognizable.

Pierre Boulez. Sarah Caldwell. Jay Cantor. Elliott Carter. Alfred Chandler. Fay Chandler. Phyllis Curtin. Elsa Dorfman. Richard Dyer.

If he was lucky, he’d find one shot that worked.

Then he’d project that photo onto a 30-by-30-inch museum-board—filling the entire space with the one face.

Annie Fischer. Bob Garis. Bob Ginsberg with his eyes closed. Terry Gross. John Harbison. Seamus Heaney. Rachel Jacoff, her face a lunar landscape. Rudy Kikel. Alice Mattison. Michael Mazur. James Merrill.

Tracing the contours of that face, he’d turn the projection into a kind of topographical map—readable only to him.

Then, very carefully, he’d fill in all the spaces.

He called this his “paint-by-numbers” phase.

Alice Methfessel. Mark Morris. Seiji Ozawa. Robert Polito. Anja Silja. Harvey Silverglate. Isaac Silverglate. Craig Smith. Jean Stapleton.

Once every space was painted in, he’d take a clean brush and start to move the paint!

To brush the paint away.

Turn the board sideways, then upside-down, and keep brushing—brushing and brushing the paint violently away.

“His brushing,” one critic wrote, “brings the viewer into direct contact not so much with the illusion of movement as with the inner workings of movement itself.”

Stop too soon, the person might not yet have begun to breathe; take too long, the person could get brushed completely away.

High-wire act over an abyss.

Until suddenly that huge face became the face he saw in his head.

Bewildered Klaus Tennstedt. Glamorous Violette Verdy. Michael York.

York, always prepared to be photographed, would “freeze” a split-second ahead of every camera click—and ended up as two separate portraits: each one totally different, each one completely himself.

A hundred faces: Nancy Armstrong to Ben Zander. Comic and tragic masks. Unmasked. The web of our life.

Actors, musicians, writers, dancers, other artists and museum curators.

My father. My mother. John Pijewski’s mother.


Each face emerging from—emerging from under—that volatile surface.

“Looking at a Hamilton portrait,” a viewer observed, “is like being in the middle of an intimate conversation.”

Each blurring brushstroke an increasingly complex disclosure of tenderness or reproof, curiosity or indifference.

No one he particularly needed to speak to; only someone he needed to speak to him.