Behind the ‘Northeast Philly dude’ painting that inspired the memes
A beautiful thing happened in our town this week: a supernova of memes that perpetuate the archetype of the “Northeast Philly Dude,” the one true dawn that lives around us.
It all started with an innocent tweet from Colt Shaw, a local journalist who now covers clean energy for New Project Media. Shaw provided his astute impression of “Portrait of a Carthusian,” a famous painting by Peter Christ. The early Dutch master worked in Bruges in the 15th century.
It’s so accurate it hurts. There’s the huge, wispy beard. The hood, an ancestor of the hoodie. There’s the Caesar haircut and Marshall Mathers phrase. All that’s missing is a Jimmy Butler Sixers jersey to complete the outfit and a Newport tucked behind the ear.
Since that December 23 tweet, memes depicting the Northeast Philly guy in his home milieu have been spreading across social media. For a final selection, check out this Facebook post with scenes from local bars and SEPTA stations, sacred intersections, the Eagles Super Bowl Parade, Philadelphia Mills, and every other signature you can think of.
Posted by Dominic Taurino on Monday 28th Dec 2020
Shaw told PhillyVoice on Tuesday that he first saw the painting on a Twitter account that shares medieval art.
“It just hit me, man, I saw this guy walking down the street,” said Shaw, 25, a Bucks County native whose family is from Northeast Philly.
The tweet slowly picked up pace at first, garnering around 150 likes before a couple of retweets “put it into orbit,” Shaw said.
From there, typical meme anarchy took over, with a Shyster Instagram account scrubbing Shaw’s name (out of shame) and an organic burst of original content oozing out in all its glory.
The great Peter Christ could never have imagined that his original piece from 1446 would resonate so happily in the New World of the future. He spent centuries in anonymity, a successor to the revolutionary Bruges painter Jan van Eyck. The Bruges School of Painting continued to develop the style of the Italian Renaissance, preferring more natural and realistic details over the idealization of their subjects.
Very few Christ paintings have been signed and dated by him, so the task of identifying his works has been left to modern art historians. Much of his work had been confused with the work of van Eyck or seen as a derivative of the former master before 19th-century scholars realized his technical ability, inventive style, and meticulous attention to detail.
Five of the 30 surviving paintings of Christ are housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, including “Portrait of a Carthusian”.
The level of detail of the portrait is impressive, right down to the bow tie that sits at the bottom of the picture frame. This is seen as a notable example of trompe-l’œil (“fool the eye”), a technique that creates the optical illusion in three dimensions.
A Khan Academy lesson examines the specifics of the Christ painting, including this interpretation by Dr. David Drogan, specialist in Renaissance art and frequent lecturer at the Met.
“The inclusion of a fly is perhaps intended to remind us that life is short,” said Drogan. “This mortality is always with us and death is always around the corner – because, of course, flies are usually to find things to decay. This fly at the bottom is intended to remind the viewer that this person may be in the flower of his life and very vital and strong and alive looking that death is always around the corner. ”
As for the young man in the portrait, the Frick Collection in Pittsburgh notes that his appearance suggests that he likely wasn’t a strict Carthusian. They were one of the strictest monastic orders of the late Middle Ages:
The sitter’s lack of tonsure and beard identifies him as a lay brother, that is, someone who had made a vow but was practicing a more relaxed version of Carthusian life. It appears to be the earliest recorded portrait of a clergyman in which the sitter is not shown praying. The young man’s self-confident outward gaze suggests that the portrait was intended for a worldly setting. It may have been commissioned by its family to celebrate its entry into the Order and to invoke the presence of the absent performer who is now committed to a life of seclusion.
In 2019 the Frick Collection had an exhibition of works commissioned in the 1440s by the Carthusian monk Jan Vos, who was appointed in front of the Carthusian monastery in Bruges in 1441 and who would probably have known the young subject of this portrait.
Centuries later, the lay brothers of Northeast Philly lock themselves up in the best-finished cellars in town. These Philadelphia sports shrines focus on giant 4K TVs that are muted and synced to radio broadcasts. Framed memorabilia, pennants, and old Eagles plans adorn the walls. Bobbleheads and basketball figures from the 90s (the ones with the stands) are attached to the narrow edge above the mini fridge.
This is the Northeast Philly guy’s sanctuary, his place to shout that the Eagles should play the fuckball More.
Shaw said he doesn’t think the references to Northeast Philly guys – the Kevins, Shawns, and Ryans we probably all chill out with – are negative.
“I don’t know if it’s derisive,” Shaw said. “I think it could turn out like this, but I definitely think it’s almost like a northeastern curiosity. It’s almost like an outdated one. I would have thought that hair would be cut – me and my brother call it the ‘boul’- Cut – I remember seeing this as a kid. I would have thought it was gone now, but it lives on. It just has stamina, I don’t know. ”
Philly is already home to many great works of art, from Rubens and Snyders’ “Promethius Bound” to Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de vivre” and Duchamp’s “Étant donnés”.
Now is a fearless artist going to team up with a guy from Northeast Philly in a Matisse Thybulle jersey? If so, just put a spotted lantern fly on the frame.