Multiple `readings' of three portraits, verbal and visual

Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, James, by David M. Lubin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 189 pp. $20 In the third grade, to encourage writing (creative or not), our teacher would tape above the blackboard an ``interesting'' picture from a magazine and invite us each to make up a story about it.

There is much truth in the simple idea that pictures invite us to tell stories about them: to interpret them. Yet, compared with the attention lavished on literary texts, commentary on the visual arts sometimes seems thin. Between the necessary but tedious details of curatorship and the gratuitous extravagances of connoisseurship (to say nothing of the genuine difficulties faced by critics in translating the visual into verbal terms), not all pictures receive the ``readings'' they truly deserve.

Adding his voice to the growing chorus of explicators working to fill the interpretative gap, David M. Lubin, an assistant professor of art and American studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, offers us readings with a vengeance in this study of American portraiture in the post-Civil War era.

Mr. Lubin's interdisciplinary aspirations are reflected in his selection of two painters and one writer as representative portraitists of the period. He further narrows his focus to three specific ``portraits'': ``The Agnew Clinic,'' painted in 1889 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916); ``The Boit Children'' (1882-83) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925); and ``The Portrait of a Lady,''an 1881 novel written by Henry James (1843-1916).

Drawing upon a variety of approaches used by academic literary critics, Lubin aims to provide as many interesting readings as possible. He is very much against conclusions, closure, and definite pronouncements and correspondingly keen on maintaining an open-ended, creative atmosphere of ``indeterminacy'' and ``multiplicity.''

To some, the prospect of a critic offering two (or more) divergent -- even contradictory -- interpretations of a single work seems sheer perversity. But there is, I think, a good deal to be gained from an eclecticism that enables us to look at art from a variety of perspectives.

Eclecticism allows Lubin to indulge in some ingenious and imaginative speculation. But more often than not, his carefully cultivated ``indeterminacy'' is indistinguishable from aimlessness.

Rather than opening new vistas, his application of textual criticism to visual art reads like a parody of Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, and other fashionable critical modes. Like a child who's just been handed a box of 128 different-colored crayons, he's palpably eager to try them all, but unable to compose a coherent picture.

Some critics ponder the significance of specific letters in literary texts. Far-fetched, perhaps -- but at least the letters are in the text. Mr. Lubin finds significance in the letters that form the family name of the children in Sargent's portrait.

Looking at the four girls in this picture, we may well wonder why the father who commissioned the painting was content, apparently, to allow the oldest girl's face to remain hidden in the shadows. Lubin provides no explanation. He is concentrating ``phenomenologically'' on the picture, not the people. Phenomenologically speaking, he reminds us at one point, the real-life names of the girls do not concern us.

But later, phenomenology (to say nothing of common sense) is thrown to the winds, when Lubin decides it is important that we know the real-life name of the doll the littlest girl is holding, so that he may demonstrate that the doll (clad in girlish pink, as it happens) somehow embodies the child's ``papa,'' because its name, as pronounced by the stammering toddler, is ``P-paul.''

Having opened up his critical canvas to all forms of suggestion, Lubin seems content to have jotted down whatever associations came into his head. Since most things (to adapt a well-known adage) are either concave or convex, most things appear to remind him of sex. Or -- as he would say, pouring the old Freudian vintage into new feminist bottles -- of sexism!

Despite acrobatic feats of ingenuity, this study uncovers little that adds to our understanding, either of the portraits or of the culture in which they were generated. If ``Act of Portrayal'' does not succeed, even on its own terms, the reason is not that the author has gone too far (as he likes to think), but because, dazzled by his own performance, he has not gone far enough.

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