There is a level in which we all stare, but it’s usually done surreptitiously. I know that I am perfectly capable of “checking-out” a woman at great length. I’ve even developed techniques to aid my endeavor. Scratch my forehead to cover my eyes. Hold the menu just high enough, so that it comes between her eyes and mine, but not between her breasts and my eyes. That said, the success of these techniques is not even. I’ve sometimes even embarrassed myself in this endeavor. Like just the other day, when this woman discovers I’m looking at her breasts, which were lovely. But it is unusual to have such permission to stare from a stranger. It’s not like she said, “Oh, it’s okay. Please, stare at my breasts.” But a portrait does, in fact, say just that – “It’s okay to stare.”
In some sense, however, I wonder if this isn’t what all art does. The novel or the poem, the sculpture or the portrait, the opera or the TV show, all these allow us to stare at someone’s most intimate moments. We watch the first kiss of Romeo and Juliet. We watch the Stooge slip on a banana peal. We watch Michael Corleone kill his own brother. And we do so without blinking.
I remember being at Madame Trousseau’s wax museum in Times Square. I went right up to Gena Davis, as it were, and stared at length at her. I was surprised at how tall she is.
We, my beloved and I, are also truly quite taken by this idea of a portrait allowing us to stare. It’s a compelling idea. We wonder if maybe this is also a great part of love, saying to the lover, “It’s okay to stare at me.”
My wife and I not long ago saw the original “La Fornarina” by Raphael, and were so taken by it that we have a framed replica of it in our bedroom. It is thought that she was the lover of Raphael. The half naked pose, of course, suggests something she would do for a lover. Phoebe and I think she is saying, “It’s okay to stare at my breasts.” We think of this as the moment just before she says, “It’s okay to watch me caress myself.”