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Henry Lee Higginson

Oil on canvas, 1903 by John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)

Higginson is described by the curator as being a Civil War Veteran and a banker, which one might as easily substitute for “patriarch” and “capitalist”. Indeed, the uncomfortable intersect between these two descriptors creates a provocative tension in the portrait which almost seems to dare the modern observer into reacting towards it with hostility. This is accentuated by its imposing stature as a physical object: it is large and oversized in comparison to its co-exhibits; almost as if it demands and dares you to size it up and challenge it; almost as if the wealth it personifies extends in solidified perpetuity, looming large over the present day implications of its legacy. One wonders: what was the real source of Higginson’s wealth? Who are the lost and absent victims of its creation?

That Sargent has cast this figure in the rich yet muted tones of the Old Masters adds to the sensation of its subject as being imperious and imperial: a certain arrogance is tangible, afforded by the attitude of entitlement Higginson seems to embody with his intractable, almost indifferent stare. He seems to brook no reproach, no censure. The slightly raised head and the way he sits monarch-like on the leather-clad chair, his proud broad chest puffed up, captures this presentment. Behind the greying beard, do we denote something Trumpian in that implacable gaze? Is our unsettled response to him because we chart a clear psychic line from our modern detestation of Trump back through Whitmanesque vistas of American history to his very origin, his genesis?

And yet, there is something undeniably fragile and insecure about this grand forbearer which flirts with a kind of nostalgic nobility someone as modern and superficial as Trump could never hope to engender: the old cavalry cloak spread across his lap (the way his right hand lies gently atop it and seems ready to stroke it, eek some fading Proustian memory out of its association) and the battle scar across his forehead suggest both an affiliation with the brotherhood of war and the wounds of a survived experience with near death which pique our deeper sympathies to the reality of such scarred and broken personas; that they fight wars and then keep close to them the remnants of those wars is both a pitiful paradox and an all too human response which we realise has and always will be a sad trait of mighty men.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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