In 1971, the conceptual artist Françoise Sullivan (b. 1923) was living in Rome with her four sons, and she often visited museums while the children were in school. One day, at the Galleria Nazionale, she happened upon one of the several paintings entitled Portrait of a Young Man by Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556). In it a youth faces the viewer with an open gaze, his shoulder-length hair framing his face. Sullivan was moved by the painting, though she didn’t immediately know why. At the museum gift shop, she found a postcard of the painting and bought it.
When her sons returned home that afternoon, the youngest, Francis, showed his mother his school photograph, taken that same day. Sullivan was struck by how much her son resembled Lotto’s youthful subject in spite of the some four hundred years that separated them. Francis too faced the viewer with a calm and open gaze, and he too sported shoulder-length hair, his bangs covering his forehead, as those of Canadian boys often did in the 1970s.
The resulting work juxtaposes the two images Sullivan encountered that day, pasted on a rectangular piece of cardboard. The idea was a simple one, nodding to the tradition of the readymade. But she felt it was also a powerful one, one that managed to illustrate in a sharp and concise way the recurrence of images, styles, and ideas over time.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Françoise Sullivan: Life & Work by Annie Gérin.