'Boy with an Apple' ~ a short essay on the fictional renaissance painting featured in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.
As we begin to unravel this painting it is clear that we have caught the gaze of the young man, he studies us as much as we intend to study him. This idea is key in understanding the deliberate symbolism of the portrait; the sitter is very much aware of its construction and nature, there is no voyeurism here. We must realise that this is a commercial venture; the patron of the portrait, most probably the boy’s family, have commissioned this valuable work for clear reason.
This is a boy on the verge of maturity, cleanly shaven yet appearing strong and wise in posture. The portrait displays such a transition; it is an image to mark his coming of age – a custom often dominated by female portraiture in later periods. He may well be the heir to the family, valuable in himself to their future, encouraged to seek a wife to continue this line of inheritance.
Once we move down from his gaze, and past the fashionable furs and fabrics, we see the second element of the portrait – the apple. It rests just above his extravagantly detailed codpiece, and if we are to view this portrait as a coming of age piece, the proximity of apple to such a fashion statement is not at all coincidental.
The boy holds the apple between forefinger and thumb in a typically seductive hand gesture, seen in many works of art it is a conventional device in expressing a sensual tone.
The apple is symbolic in both a biblical and classical sense. Biblically it is reminiscent of Genesis, and represents the temptation of Eve. The forbidden fruit is conventionally portrayed as an apple; here the boy displays the fruit to will temptation, yet it is very much within his grasp. More intriguing and a lot more compelling is the classical reading, with the golden apple of mythology alluding to Paris – who is given the fruit by the Gods to award to the most beautiful of three Goddesses. ‘The Judgement of Paris’ is a renowned story in art and literature; Hera, Athena and Aphrodite offer Paris different gifts to persuade him, Hera offers to make Paris a great King, Athena offers wisdom and skill in battle, Aphrodite offers the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. Paris chooses Aphrodite, and is given Helen of Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. This famous mythological event would have been well known by renaissance artists, as well as the aristocratic sitters to such portraits. It is therefore of no coincidence that this boy, on the verge of adolescence, displays to us a golden apple. The gods of Greek mythology also favored young men verging between childhood and maturity; they were seen as the most beautiful specimens of mortal men.
We can imagine then, that this young man is deciding upon a suitor to win his golden apple, he becomes Paris, in searching beyond the frame – studying the viewer for beauty. In his instance the figure within the portrait becomes the voyeur of the audience, this position marking him a step above what could often become a vulnerable display of youth.
The concept of age may lead onto a secondary aspect of time passing by; mortality. Ultimately the fruit he displays will decay, as we can see in the dark imperfections upon the apple, it is already beginning to perish.