A couple of weeks ago, I finally had my beard trimmed. It’s been something of a fixture for the last thirty-eight years, as the last time I shaved was the night before D-Day in the Falklands Conflict, to ensure that my gas mask sealed well against my face, in case chemical weapons were used on the battlefield. It had grown abundantly since its last trim, just before lockdown in March, since when hairdressing was effectively illegal. My family recognises me again, flattering that I now look years younger, and less like Father Christmas, or maybe someone else in one of these paintings.
Fashions for facial hair, from full beards to perfunctory moustaches, have waxed and waned through history. For Classical civilisations, especially the Romans, beards were for old and distinguished men, or foreigners, barbarians who were savage and uncivilised. Among deities, they have several strong associations which are exceptions to those rules.
The most enduring is, of course, Father Time himself, shown here in Pieter Thijs’s Time and the Three Fates from about 1665. Father Time is holding his traditional scythe and his beard has grown luxuriantly over the aeons.
Another common occurrence is among river gods, who look as if they’re cousins of Father Time, their beards flowing like the water from their earthenware jars. In François Boucher’s Pan and Syrinx from 1743, the nymph Syrinx is seeking the help of the river god and Naiad, as she attempts to evade Pan’s unwanted attentions. At least his beard doesn’t mutate into reeds in the way that his hair does.
Beards are a less common feature of other classical deities: some paintings of Zeus/Jupiter show him as the hirsute senior, others don’t. Other gods such as Apollo are invariably clean-shaven. The strongest association in Christianity is with God the Father, whose beard is mandatory.
In Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, this is probably the best-known image of God the Father, as he creates Adam. The thick white hair on his head and in his beard are streamed back in the unseen wind.
This inspired another famous image in William Blake’s The Ancient of Days (c 1821), although this is generally accepted as being Urizen from Blake’s personal mythology. His pair of dividers or compasses are an attribute of Urizen as an architect, and have a long tradition in visual representations of god-like figures, particularly those who are creators.
Other mythologies use similar hair and beards in their paternal figures. In the Finnish Kalevala, this includes Ilmarinen, the figure seen still holding the tiller of this boat in his left hand, as he tries to make off with the Sampo. The Mistress of Pohjola wakes up, realises what has happened and sends the boat thick fog, a great wind, and more, to try to stop this removal. This is shown in Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s The Defence of the Sampo from 1896.
Among regular mortals, beards have strong connotations, for instance with experienced mariners.
John Everett Millais’ The North-West Passage from 1874 coincided with the departure of a British expedition in futile quest of the rumoured north-west passage round the north of Canada to the Pacific. Enterprises like that had brought a succession of failures since the famous total loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845.
The old man here is clearly an experienced mariner, who knows the risks and futility. The young woman, probably his daughter, is presumably the wife of one of those on the expedition. The man stares hard and cold, the woman reads anxiously. Behind them a chart shows the limited knowledge of the area of the north-west passage at the time. Flags declare an affinity with the nation, and its Navy. A painting on the wall shows a ship negotiating ice in the far north.
Ferdinand Hodler’s The Reader (c 1885) reuses the classical association between learning and facial hair, with this older man engrossed in a newspaper.
These include the artists and their own circles as prime examples of wise men with beards.
Most of the figures in Henri Fantin-Latour’s series of group portraits are bearded. The first of these, Homage to Delacroix, was completed in 1864. Its figures include Champfleury and Baudelaire, alongside those who Fantin rated as the brightest and best among modern painters, including his friends Whistler and Manet. Inevitably he included himself among such distnguished company. I count seven beards and three moustaches here, with only one man being clean-shaven.
Many of the Impressionists wore beards, but the best-covered of all were the Nabis.
Jan Verkade’s Self-portrait from 1891-94 shows the artist’s luxuriant moustache. and more modest beard.
In Georges Lacombe’s fine portrait of Paul Sérusier, The Nabi with the Shiny Beard from about 1894, the artist not only looks like a wizard, but there are waves of ‘force’ emanating from the first two fingers of his right hand.
Taken together as a group, the Nabis formed an exemplary collection of beards, as shown in Félix Vallotton’s Five Painters from 1902-03.
I will complete this brief survey of painters with beards in the next and concluding article of this pair, following which I’ll show some examples of facial hair with more sinister connotations.