Sign up for our free newsletter
To generations of readers, J.D. Salinger has remained a figure frozen in time, not unlike his most famous creation, Holden Caulfield. Chalk that up partly to the youth he explored in much of his literature—-boarding schools, scout outings, the playground of the Upper East Side—-and to the fact that Salinger had retreated to Cornish, N.H. by his mid-30s, and stopped publishing altogether a decade after that.
But there’s another reason why the Salinger of our imaginations never grew up: We don’t know, exactly, what he looked like after a certain age. All readers had to go on were two black-and-white shots from jacket sleeves, portraits of the author as a young man. So it was jarring to read obituaries of the 91-year-old Salinger last week accompanied by pictures of him in what appeared to be his early 20s.
A portrait from a 1961 Time magazine cover reveals a slightly different Salinger: grayer, morose, perhaps beaten. The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the work by Robert Vickrey today. It is currently hanging on the museum’s first floor.
Below the jump, an inch-by-inch analysis of this unusual portrait.
The Dimple Area
Curiously, Vickrey renders Salinger with twin moles on either side of his nose. These could be blemishes from the overexposure that forced Salinger into seclusion—-or they could be the markings of a clown, an author whose cultural weight turned him into a caricature.
Glassy, and not completely aligned with his face, Salinger’s eyes express both yearning and boredom.
The Hint of a Smile
Salinger’s lips have been treated with a sfumato effect—-his expression moves between sly and blank. Perhaps more telling, his partial smile is at odds with his cheeks, which appear to be dragged down by gravity more than the rest of his face.
Notably, Salinger appears to be graying above his ears—-a sure sign of aging, or perhaps an early form of product placement: The portrait was made the same year that Marvel Comics premiered the Fantastic Four. This may be J.D. Salinger, but he’s the spitting image of Reed Richards.
Here we find Salinger slightly outside his natural habitat—-far from both upper-crust Manhattan and the wooded isolation of Cornish. To go by the press notes, this is more of a dreamscape—-a “metaphorical amber wave of grain.” Actually, it looks more like Vickrey transported Salinger somewhere downmeadow from “Christina’s World,” Andrew Wyeth‘s famous painting of a woman sprawled in a tan field.
A tasteful, too-narrow black tie connotes monkish seclusion and, possibly, mourning for one’s lost childhood. Or maybe Salinger’s just dressing in preparation for the funeral of…
The Kid About to Teeter off a Cliff
A child, dressed in a red cardigan, contemplates the abyss, his arms held outstretched for balance, or perhaps to embrace his role as a chilling symbol. OR: The kid is actually facing Salinger, trying to get the author’s attention. But Salinger’s too sallow and wistful and preoccupied, or maybe too busy watching reruns of Dynasty, to muster an appropriate emotional response.
“J. D. Salinger” by Robert Vickrey, 1961, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Time magazine, © Robert Vickrey/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.