Berenice Abbott portrayed Jean Cocteau, French surrealist artist, poet, writer, and filmmaker, sitting in bed with a somewhat vacant expression, which mirrors the expression on the paper mâché doll head he cradles in his left arm. Cocteau and the paper mâché doll are covered by a white sheet and the white, neutral color of the bed linens plays off the striped wallpaper on the background wall. As a whole this image echoes the contradictory pairings of objects and humans often found in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
The series of portraits Abbott took of Jean Cocteau, sitting or lying in bed, Abbott contended, could best capture the complexity of a person’s character. On another level, it points to Abbott’s interest in the interplay between the visible and invisible aspects of character. Cocteau addresses this very issue from a surrealist viewpoint by drawing out the complicated relationship between his body as object and himself as subject. While Cocteau chose to frame himself in this way, Abbott reacted to both his appearance and unconscious self in the taking of the photographs.
Portraiture served as Berenice Abbott’s primary livelihood while living in Paris in the mid-1920s. It marks the formative phase of Abbott’s realist photography, which she practiced throughout her career. Abbott’s approach to the practice of portraiture owes much to Man Ray in terms of flattering soft-focus, artificial lighting to create a sense of mystery and depth, among other details. Yet unlike Man Ray, Abbott used the portrait as a vehicle to reveal the sitter’s character, as gleaned through their communicative expression, physical presence, and intellectual depth. Abbott’s approach to portraits and her desire to highlight the unique qualities of her subjects can be seen as laying the foundation for artists working today such as Gillian Wearing who uses portraits to make statements about the relationship between public and private identities.