Sam’s Selfies

Not really, of course. There were no smartphones in the 18th century, and though I can’t imagine Sam taking lots of selfies even if there had been, I can certainly imagine Boswell taking all kinds of pics when he was in Sam’s company. And, frankly, given Boswell’s ceaseless examination of himself as well, I can imagine him taking selfies for sure.

What I’d like to do this week is present a few of the famous and not-so-famous portraits of Sam that still exist. I asked my friend Shabnam Dastoornejad, who is an artist and art teacher, to give me her brief thoughts on each of them. Overall, she thought that all the paintings (perhaps with the exception of Hero Ter Weidje’s) portray him as a deep thinker, but she has some specific comments on each one.

The pose is elegant, kind of relaxed and satisfied, perhaps after he’s done some writing — one hand on the paper and the other holding the quill. The chair stands out: with its checked pattern, it seems more modern than classical. Sam seems to be thinking about something, perhaps a joke in his mind, because there is a bit of a smile on his face. He is pale but overall seems in a good mood, in contrast to some of the other portraits.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1756-1757. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

Sam wears no wig and has short hair. His jacket is a brownish-red, similar to but lighter than the colour of his hair. It seems very modern. His eyes are half-closed, as though he is having trouble reading something or focusing.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1769. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

The backgrounds of all the classical portraits are kind of dark, and his face is the focal point. What I see is him as a thinker, not a common ordinary person. He is focused on something and is about to speak. He is in a relaxed position. The composition of the work is two-thirds the subject and one-third background, which is conventional. This is a formal pose, including the presentation of the hand. Both the face and the hand are in effect “posed” and both are angled.

William Doughty, ca. 1772-1778 (after Reynolds). Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

This is “Blinking Sam.” He seems to have a hard time reading, as if he needed glasses. Again, this is classical, with the emphasis on his face and on part of his body. And he seems to be wearing his wig again.

Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1783 (after Reynolds). Credit: Harvard University Library.

It is interesting that at that time there was a specific kind of travelling clothing. His hand seems to be saying goodbye to people, even though he seems to be in the middle of nowhere! I am not sure what the small person in the background is doing there, why he was put there. Sam’s proportion to the background is really odd. Note that he takes up nearly the whole portrait, in contrast to most of the others. He is the focal point.

Thomas Trotter, 1786. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

Sam is again in formal clothing and very focused, in deep thinking, wondering. Note that it is a book on which he puts his hands in order to support his face. Dark background but formal lighting. Very unlike the other portraits.

George Zobel, 1854 (possibly after Reynolds). Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

The background is a reddish-brown dark colour and the shirt is ultramarine blue, which makes for a contrast of hues. The colours in his face (the focal point) make Sam look really pale, similar to the Reynolds portrait on which it is based. The work overall seems in the style of Expressionism and Cubism together. I see a little of Georges Braque in the artist’s style. The lines are mostly angles and there are no curves: everything is done with angled lines. His hands imply that he is thinking about something. It’s interesting that the artist was intent on showing both hands, which meant that the top of the head is cut off.

Anna Bernhardt, 2013 (after Reynolds). Credit: Wayne Jones (commissioned).

The background is kind of dark, but he is holding a candle and there is a lightbulb above his head, both of which give the only colour. I see them both as representing clarity. Or as representations of woman and man. His clothing in this portrait is not formal. If it’s a bathrobe he’s wearing, it’s odd to see it with a pointed collar. Do men really wear those at night?! Some of my students thought that someone must have stolen most of his books! The other thing is that, to me, he seems to be lost.

Hero Ter Weidje, ca. 2019. Credit: Wayne Jones (commissioned).


Now that you’ve seen all those portraits, you need Wayne’s soothing mellifluous voice to take even more of your troubles away …

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