John the Fearless (1379-1419) was Duke of Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. The life he led was like so many of the upper crust, then and now: contention, scheming, betrayal, murder, and war. Portraits of such people tend to be muscular and assertive: I’m tough, get it?

Donald Trump c. 2018 [ABC]

Bellini: Giovanni Emo c.1475 [Wikipedia]


















Certainly, John was a busy player in the years leading up to his assassination. There was his artful dalliance with Henry V of England, his sneaky murder of the rival Duke of Orléans, his shifting political alliances, and so on. 


John the Fearless    unknown artist    [Wikipedia]

But then we have this portrait. It’s not about an overbearing big shot. Those half-closed eyes, the serious brows, the almost-smile. Also the straight, stiff neck: he’s thoughtful, but alert and disciplined. There is almost a puckish air about it, as if he were contemplating some unspoken, probably not very funny joke — perhaps even a regret.





    San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor has long been a reliable place to see old, reliable European art. A recent show, “Casanova: the Seduction of Europe”, for example, was several rooms full of work by those resplendent 18th Century names you see in all the art history books. Boucher’s “Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy” (1752): there it was in the flesh (that happy turn of phrase being in this case barely sufficient). Along with many other super pieces.


       Recently, however, there has been an effort to jazz the place up a bit: get past the old stuff, shake off the dust. Last fall, for example, there was a show of Sarah Lucas sculpture. The come-on piece in the lobby was a plaster cast of a woman’s lower half, with a cigarette stuck up her anus. 

Sarah Lucas c. courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

        No doubt the guards accumulated a raft of hilarious anecdotes of parents, caught off guard, trying to explain this to their children. I didn’t ask.