If it’s true a picture is worth a thousand words, then what do the many images of Fryderyk Chopin tell us?
We are fortunate to have a number of Chopin likenesses in existence today. Drawings. Etchings. Paintings. A couple of photographs. Even his death mask.
There are a few depictions of Chopin in performance. But most of the extant images are portraits of a man with an interesting countenance. Almost without exception, Chopin is shown to be lean-faced with a tall brow; long, sharp nose; large, thoughtful eyes, and, compared with his other linear features, somewhat surprisingly full lips and mouth. And he usually looks quite serious -- even sometimes grave.
The most telling and expressive images of Chopin are by those who were close to him. Chopin’s friend, the artist Eugene Delacroix, famously painted him using bold strokes and dark colors which seem to capture the composer’s complex personality and contemplative demeanor . And there is a wonderful profile sketch by his long-time lover, George Sand. She shows him at a writing desk engrossed in thought. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Chopin’s creative life, and you get a sense of what it was like to be with him day after day.
Then there is the photograph taken in 1849, the year of Chopin’s death. As was his habit, he is dapperly dressed, and his hair is carefully combed and groomed. But by this time, he was very ill, and you can see it plainly. His brow is furrowed. His face is drawn. His eyes look directly and piercingly at the camera. There is no hint of a smile. It’s a haunting image.
But among all the serious likenesses, there is one portrait where Chopin looks happy. He isn’t smiling, but his face is content, peaceful and kind. The portrait is a watercolor by Maria Wodzinska to whom Chopin was engaged for a time. You can see it was painted by someone who knew him well. He seems so comfortable and open. And it’s clear the picture was created with care and love. It’s not the image we most often associate with Chopin. But perhaps it should be as it reveals more than one facet of this complicated man.
Taken together, these images provide an almost, though surely not complete, picture of this enigmatic figure, Chopin: the composer whom everyone knows; about whom we know so little. - Rachel Stewart