How to Look at Portraits

Nicolas Poussin – self-portrait.

…or at least here’s just one more to add to the many ways one might look at them. Below is a wonderful passage by Bruno Snell (1896-1986), the great professor of classical philology at the University of Hamburg.  In it he reflects on ways of seeing in Homer, on the words Homer uses to “denote the operation of sight”. Derkesthai means “to have a particular look in one’s eye”, while paptainein means “to look about, inquisitively, carefully or with fear”. There are many other words, but I think these two are of particular interest and have some definite practical uses. Derkesthai and paptainein, for instance, are good concepts to bear in mind when one is trying to evaluate someone’s personality based on how they react to a given idea or situation, how they look. Second, the whole concept behind derkesthai is extremely useful to have to hand if one is attempting to describe and evaluate a portrait, say a painting, a photograph or a sculpture. There is often, in the best portraits, a degree of intensity that elevates them from the merely descriptive and places them in a higher realm, revealing some unique inner quality in the subject. Homer and Snell make good companions as one tries to unravel what that quality might be. As Snell put it, “The scholar too, like the restorer of an old painting, may yet in many places remove the dark coating of dust and varnish which the centuries have drawn over the picture, and thus give back to the colours their original brilliance.” 

Homer uses a great variety of verbs to denote the operation of sight. Of these several have gone out of use in later Greek, at any rate in prose literature and living speech: derkesthai, leussein, ossesthai, paptainein. Only two words make their appearance after the times of Homer: blepein and theorin. The words which were discarded tell us that the older language recognized certain needs which were no longer felt by its successor. 

Derkesthai means: to have a particular look in one’s eye. Drakon, the snake, whose name is derived from derkesthai, owes this designation to the uncanny glint in his eye. He is called “the seeing one”, not because he can see particularly well, but because his stare commands attention. By the same token Homer’s derkesthai refers not so much to the function of the eye as to its gleam noticed by someone else. The verb is used of the Gorgon whose glance incites terror, and of the raging boar whose eyes radiate fire. Many a passage in Homer reveals its proper beauty only if this meaning is taken into consideration: e.g. [Odysseus]: ponton ep’ atrugeton derkesketo dakrua leibon. Derkesthai means “to look with a specific expression,” and the context suggests that the word here refers to the nostalgic glance which Odysseus, an exile from his homeland, sends across the seas…. Of the eagle it may be said that ozutaton derketai, he looks very sharply; but whereas in English the adjective would characterize the function and capacity of the visual organ, Homer has in mind the beams of the eagle’s eye, beams which are as penetrating as the rays of the sun which are also called “sharp” by Homer; like a pointed weapon they cut through everything in their path. Derkesthai is also used with an external object; in such a case the present would mean: “his glance rests upon something,” and the aorist: “his glance falls upon an object,” “it turns toward something,” “he casts his glance on someone….”

The same is true of another of the verbs which we have mentioned as having disappeared in later speech. Paptainein is also a mode of looking, namely a “looking about” inquisitively, carefully, or with fear. Like derkesthai, therefore, it denotes a visual attitude, and does not hinge upon the function of sight as such. Characteristically enough neither word is found in the first person…. A man would notice such attitudes in others rather than ascribing them to himself. Leusso behaves quite differently. Etymologically it is connected with leukos, “gleaming,” “white”; three of the four cases in the Iliad where the verb is followed by an accusative object pertain to fire and shining weapons. The meaning clearly is: to see something bright. It also means: to let one’s eyes travel…. Pride, joy, and a feeling of freedom are expressed in it. Frequently leusso appears in the first person, which distinguishes it from derkesthai and paptainein, those visual attitudes which are mostly noticed in others. It is never used in situations of sorrow or anxiety.

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