Column: Seeing ourselves vs. others seeing us

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Photos and portraits capture images of us and can disclose the gap between how we see ourselves and

In 1954, Graham Sutherland was commissioned by members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to paint a celebratory portrait of Sir Winston Churchill to mark his 80th birthday.

Sutherland, known as a leading modern artist in England, sketched the legendary leader several times in charcoal at his Chartwell home. Churchill was serving his second stint as prime minister.

And he acted like the heralded elder statesman he was.

Despite his age and frail health, Churchill was just as gruff, surly and stubborn as ever. History books were already noting how he saved England from Nazi Germany while playing a major role in the Allies' victory in World War II.

And he knew it.

Churchill made clear to Sutherland that he didn't want such a portrait, according to numerous news accounts. Sutherland, who prided himself on depicting the realism of his subjects, listened to his artful instincts, not Churchill's ego-driven suggestions.

Sutherland's finished product showed Churchill sitting in a chair, clutching its armrests, leaning forward a bit, with his trademark grimace on his portly face. He was dressed in his rather drab parliamentary clothes, not a colorful, traditional Knight of the Garter robe, as Churchill demanded.

To many observers, including Churchill's wife, Clementine, the painting accurately depicted him, warts and all, figuratively speaking.

Churchill would have none of it. He demanded the painting not be unveiled during a much anticipated ceremony at Westminster Hall to celebrate his milestone birthday. Sutherland insisted it should be. British officials eventually persuaded Churchill, who accepted the gifted masterpiece with a snarky compliment.

"The portrait is a remarkable example of modern art," Churchill told guests with a wry smile. (You can watch the BBC recording at .)

Guests laughed uproariously at his polished quip as the large painting was formally unveiled behind him. To me, the portrait looked like, well, an 80-year-old Winston Churchill. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing too artistic.

As I watched that brief video of the BBC recording, again and again, I couldn't quite understand why Churchill so detested that realistic portrait. And then it dawned on me. The painting depicted how he seemed to others, possibly by the rest of the world, not how he looked at himself.

He looked curmudgeonly. He looked old. He looked like a tired potato.

Who would want to look like that? Nobody. Not me, not you, not anyone. Especially an historical figure who once pompously proclaimed, "Of course I'm an egoist."

We are all egoists to a degree. We see ourselves differently than others see us. We habitually see ourselves in a better light than the rest of the world views us.

We see maturity. They see wrinkles. We see gray hair as distinguished. They see gray hair, nothing more. We see a glimmer of our youth. They see us as who we are, not who we were.

The same misperceptions or distortions apply to people of any age, not just at my age or Churchill's age. In fact, they may be even more apropos in our younger days when our looks and image mean so much more to us. Or when our vanity or virility enhances the mirror of our self-image.

For instance, have you ever looked at old photos of yourself and thought you didn't look too good during that era, though at that time you felt pretty good about yourself? I have. Too often actually.

Have you ever left home thinking you look attractive, or at least presentable for public display, and then catch images of yourself later in the day and wonder why you look like a clothes hamper with legs? I have.

Or worse yet, someone takes your digital photo and posts it on social media. You think the photo op went well, but after it posts online, for others to see, you look like a sad tomato. Or too fat. Or too old. Or too frumpy.

Just imagine if an esteemed artist takes a few weeks to paint your portrait with the intention of depicting you realistically more than artistically, and then that bigger-than-life portrait gets publicly unveiled to the world.

Sure, one of art's purposes is to reflect viewers' idealized image of themselves or their unrealized world. Or to better understand it and better imagine it. However, when art meets honesty, it can turn into something more sobering, like a slap across the face.

Churchill experienced this, I believe. Most of us have.

Sutherland's interpretation of Churchill, even six decades later, is illustrative of how most of us similarly detest an honest portrayal of ourselves by others. Too often it's in contrast to our own distorted version.

We can delete all the unflattering digital photos of ourselves, but it won't change how others see us.

Churchill learned the same lesson — much to his, and his wife's, chagrin.

To protect the legacy of her publicly embarrassed and privately humbled husband, Lady Churchill destroyed Sutherland's painting, which was considered a masterpiece by the art world. Sutherland called it "an act of vandalism."

In the dead of night, Lady Churchill had her older brother and private secretary secretly burn the painting in a bonfire.

We should all be so fortunate about realistic renderings of ourselves.

jdavich@post-tribcom

Twitter@jdavich

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Article Column: Seeing ourselves vs. others seeing us compiled by www.chicagotribune.com