Remarks given at Signet event in honor of Peter J. Gomes
on the Occasion of Unveiling His Portrait
April 20, 2012
by Steve Coit, Signet Associate and Portraitist
Sadly, this was be a portrait from life. I had met with Peter to discuss his portrait; he was eager to get started. Unfortunately we never managed to make an appointment with each other to begin before he became too ill to make it happen.
I am not sure a portrait of from life would have been any easier. In creating a portrait, the subject’s expression and gesture have to be appropriate for that specific portrait. Peter was always so very aware of whom he was with, what he was doing, and the role he needed to play, that asking him to adopt a pose as he might wish appear in a portrait with no specific audience before him, no clear context, would have probably been a difficult task for such an acutely attuned communicator like Peter.
With Peter tragically no longer with us, this became a posthumous portrait. The challenge became finding an appropriate image or a set of appropriate images that would guide me in creating a portrait of him. In the process, I went through hundreds of photographs from Harvard and private sources. I found many memorable pictures of Peter, but useful images were few, and no one image captured Peter as I would have hoped.
I wish I had been able to find an image that, say, caught him candidly as he welcomed a friend who perhaps had stopped by with a quick question for Peter and with whom Peter was just about to share a bit of wisdom laced with wry humor. That would have been an interesting expression for a portrait, but Harvard does not send photographers to record such occasions.
Some of the most useful images came from YouTube. I watched Charlie Rose interview Peter several times over; likewise, Peter verbally jousting with Steven Colbert. At critical points, I would stop the video to see Peter caught at a candid moment when he was not thinking about where he was, when he was less focused on the camera, when he more introspective, more thoughtful, perhaps maybe even bearing an unintended grin. I would draw a sketch and make notes to myself.
The times I missed Peter the most in the process was in thinking about the other visual elements that would make up the portrait: what Peter would be wearing, the objects behind him, the location of the portrait. Normally, I collaborate with my portrait subject on such important matters, but in this case, all that was left to me. I did the best I could on that front with no help from Peter, but I think he would be pleased.
Behind him in the portrait is a piano. Music was essential in Peter’s life. The Victorian-looking setting of the portrait in the Signet library is reminiscent of Sparks House as well. Peter’s friends would recognize the messy pile of newspapers at his side. Behind him, a teacup a references Signet’s Society’s Friday teas and Peter’s ritual receptions each Wednesday at Sparks House. A gold fountain pen is in his pocket is there to write down important notes on your conversation with him, showing you he is really listening and that things would happen as a result. Behind him is a traditional Harvard portrait, characteristic traditional Harvard; the portrait of Peter is perhaps itself, a portrait of the new, updated Harvard.
In the portrait, a mirror appears behind Peter in the Signet library. The mirror hangs where the portrait of Peter now hangs. The mirror’s frame is now the frame carrying Peter’s portrait.
I don’t think portraits generally need to carry a message, but if there is a message here, it is that Peter Gomes has become our reflection, our mirror, reflecting on us, and asking us to reflect on the life of a great man, and on ourselves.