Recommended Art History Novels

As readers of this blog know, I’m a little obsessed with art history books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I just took a stack to my painting class and passed them around. Here’s your chance to find out my recent art history reading recs too.

last paintig of sara de vosThe Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2016). Haven’t heard of it yet? You will. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, earning this fabulous review from the New York Times.

This novel is a mix of your favorite art history novels, but it’s still uniquely its own. It blends themes from The Goldfinch (with fast-paced suspense, a mysterious art theft and its grasp of what power a painting can have over its beholders), The Girl With a Pearl Earring (in its gorgeous, tender depiction of painters in 1600s Holland) and The Art Forger (fascinating passages about forgery techniques; insightful consideration of the psychological effects on an artist who uses her skills to commit artistic fraud).

To summarize, an art history grad agrees to “copy” a valuable but lesser known Dutch painting, At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos (an imaginary painting by a real artist), knowing full well that it is probably going to be used as a forgery. The original is stolen and replaced with the copy. Decades pass. The art forger is now a respected curator and art historian specializing in female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, and when she mounts an exhibition, both the original and her forged copy of At the Edge of a Wood arrive on loan to the art museum. Which one is real? How can you tell? Will the curator’s shameful secret be revealed and her career destroyed? And what about the woman who painted it so many centuries ago?

I especially appreciated the author’s enlightened approach to the psychological evolution of the female characters. (Is it relevant that the author is a man? Does that make it more of a writerly/moral accomplishment — or is that lowering the bar for men? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Too often in historical fiction, whether the author is male or female, women become powerless pawns in service of plot, or victims of gender-based restrictions. While it might be true to the period, it can make for dull, uninspired reading. And yet, to give a historical female character too much agency can feel false and anachronistic.

In The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith manages to capture the truth of the historical era without sacrificing the depth of female character development. Seriously, I almost stood up and cheered at the end when I learned the full story of the last painting of Sara De Vos. So bravo to the author for pulling that off.

In addition, the author has a wonderful website you really need to visit to check out such things as: How to Forge a 17th Century Dutch Painting and “Forgeries and Figments.”

Very highly recommended.

 

improbability of love

I just burned through The Improbability of   Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, November 2015). I just love the U.S. cover — very clever turning  palette into a heart, don’t you think? I’m pleased to recommend it as another suspenseful art history novel.

Once again we have an imaginary painting (“The Improbability of Love“) by a real artist, this time a French Rococo painter from the 1700s, Antoine Watteau. Check out the author’s website where she answers the question, Why Watteau? A young chef named Annie McDee stumbles upon the painting in a second-hand shop where no one knows its true value. Annie buys is for a song, and then curious, begins to research its provenance.

The fun part of this book — a really clever move, if you ask me — comes when the painting speaks for itself. He has a distinctive voice, funny and full of insult and injury about the state of his neglect. As the painting says in his first turn to speak:

I knew I’d be rescued but never thought it would take fifty years. There should have been search parties, battalions and legions. Why? Because I am priceless and I am also the masterpiece that launched a whole artistic genre. And if that isn’t enough, I am considered to be the greatest, the most moving, and the most thrilling representation of love.

. . .

Imagine being stuffed away in a bric-a-brac shop in the company of a lot of rattan furniture, cheap china and reproduction pictures. I would not call myself a snob but there are limits.

In addition to the droll little quips from the painting, you have Russian oligarchs, greedy art dealers, clueless art experts and a Nazi art hoarder who has tried to cover up his past. Not all of these elements work, and some of the characters just clutter up the less-than-perfect plot. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the passages about the cleaning and restoration of the painting as well as the research into its provenance. The plot is suspenseful, and you’re never sure whether Annie will be able to keep the painting safe from the many interested parties who would do anything, pay anything, to lay claim to it.

Recommended.

 

georgia

Another art history novel I’m really excited about is Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe by Dawn Tripp. I am hoping my Chicago book club will read it this summer, paired with a visit to O’Keefe’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.

We all know Georgia O’Keefe from her later years as a painter of the Southwest. Maybe you’ve even been to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew that O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but then what? Hmmm, wasn’t there something about an affair with a New York photographer?

Dawn Tripp’s novel begins in New York City in 1916, the year Georgia O’Keefe meets Alfred Stieglitz, “the father of modern photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keefe form a passionate partnership as lovers and fellow artists. Tripp was lucky enough to have access to the recently released letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz  as she wrote the book (they’d been kept under seal for 25 years after O’Keefe’s death in 1986). All of those powerful, tumultuous scenes between her characters are the real deal. As Tripp has said herself, “their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom.”

This story is about a woman’s fight to create and retain her own artistic identity. Stieglitz wants to control her but she’ll have none of it, even after their marriage. O’Keefe fiercely guards her independence and insists having “a room of her own.” (The key to any artist’s happiness, right?) In the end, O’Keefe’s “room of her own” was her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she spent over 50 years of her life. In charge of her own life and art.

The author’s website is worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about Georgia O’Keefe, including a fabulous Book Club Kit I plan to use myself.

Very highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles: Sally Christie Interview

The Rivals of Versailles

 

 

I just finished The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie (as well as the first book in the Versailles series, The Sisters of Versailles) and I’ve just got to share them with you. My book club is going to love them. Who can resist historical fiction from the “other woman’s” point of view? I literally burned through both books and still feel like I’m sneaking through the secret halls and corridors of Versailles.

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles is about King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. When I lived in France, I heard a lot about her but never knew her story. I was surprised how much the French knew about her (so American of me — shocked at the lack of French shame about affairs and mistresses).

I enjoyed the book so much I reached out to Sally Christie and she was generous enough to answer my questions.

Margie:  How much time did you spend researching in Versailles, and how did it inform your writing?

Sally: I’ve made two research trips to Versailles and both times spent about a week there, staying in the town of Versailles (the palace is literally in the town). The town is almost as interesting as the palace itself, and dates from the 17th century as well. Many of the high nobles that had apartments in the palace (a sign of great prestige) also had houses in town, for their overflow of servants, clothes and horses.

Those research trips were absolutely critical for capturing the sensory details and imagining how the sisters lived.  Seeing the reality of their lives, standing at the same windows and looking out over the same gardens, walking through the stables and kennels and gardens made imagining the scenes of their lives so much easier.


Margie: If you were a tour guide at Versailles and in charge of an exciting new tour called “The Mistresses of Versailles Tour,” (sign me up!) where would you take us? Can we see any of the back staircases, hallways and little attic apartments in the book?

Sally: That tour already exists! I was fortunate on my first trip to be able to take a backstage tour that took us to the apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour (which were previously Marie Anne de Nesle’s apartment) and then also to the apartment of the Comtesse du Barry (Louis XV’s final mistress and the subject of my third book, The Enemies of Versailles).

Wow – it was simply amazing. The tour is very expensive and before doing it, I was skeptical that it would be worth it, but after I did it – no doubt. It was so fascinating to get out of the magnificent state rooms (which quite frankly I find rather boring and overwhelming) and leave the crowds behind. Take back staircases, walk along narrow corridors, experience the smaller, more intimate apartments and see some of the servants’ cubby holes that give a real sense of the “rats nest” that the majority of the palace was away from the public rooms.

The tour was arranged by the wonderful Deborah Anthony at http://www.frenchtravelboutique.com/

Now what I wish there was is a “Versailles Carte Blanche” tour which would allow you access to EVERYWHERE in the palace. Only such a small portion is open to visitors, and every time I go there I find myself looking longingly at the windows of all the other apartments that are off limits to the public, wondering what’s behind the scenes….

Margie: Where can we see artifacts from the Marquise’s era with Louis XV? I seem to recall seeing some Louis XV antiques with fish decorations on them, and now I wish I had known more at the time. Does the Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre have some?

Sally: Versailles is quite empty of furniture and is only furnished with pieces that can be authentically traced to the palace. The palace administration spends enormous amounts of money to acquire authentic pieces – think millions for a sofa! The Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre has several items of Madame de Pompadour’s, and of course many, many contemporary items from her era – she was hugely influential in the decorative arts and was a keen supporter.

I think it’s really interesting how timeless Pompadour’s 18th century interior design esthetic is. We would feel perfectly at home in it, and it is still a desirable “look” for a house: really the epitome of class, sophistication and elegance. The Musee Cognacq Jay and the Musee Jacquemart Andre are two excellent museums with lots of 18th century furniture and art.  A day trip to the factory at Sevres is fascinating, and it has a great collection of pieces developed under Pompadour’s patronage.  The Biblioteque Nationale has her engraved gem collection – it’s quite impressive and well worth a visit. If you’ve read The Rivals of Versailles, you’ll know the significance of the gem engraving for her and Louis!

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Thank you so much, Sally for the interview! If you’d like to read more and see photos of the places and scenes in the book, be sure to visit Sally’s website, which is a treasure trove of information. Check out her fabulous photos here.

Thank you also to Emma of France Book Tours for arranging this blog tour. Such a treat to read the Rivals of Versailles before it was released. Lucky me!

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie

Sally Christie, author of Sisters of Versailles

 

 

Seven Novels Featuring Women Artists

It’s been a wonderful year for historical fiction about female artists! Check out this post by Jeaninne Atkins, the author of Little Woman in Blue.

Views from a Window Seat

Many of us enjoyed crayons or paint as children, but artistic confidence often falls away as we grow. Women who continue to pursue art through high school, college, and grad school find themselves ever-increasingly among male colleagues and instructors. According to the fabulous researchers who go by the name Guerrilla Girls, art made by women makes up less than five percent of the holdings of most major museums and most galleries aren’t much better.

If it’s tough for women artists to find respect now, how did they deal with obstacles decades ago? Using fictional devices to develop scenes rich with dialogue and detail, each of the following novels published in 2015 features a real woman who was well known at the time, then mostly forgotten.

artbooks2

In The House of Hawthorne, we meet Sophia Peabody as a young woman with artistic talent that her mother considered a holy gift she…

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Cecelia Beaux: “The Greatest Woman Painter”

In The Footsteps of Cecelia Beaux

I once spent a whole day in Paris walking in the footsteps of Cecelia Beaux. I’d read her autobiography and was eager to feel the same Paris that she did. I mapped it all out and took my camera. When I tried to tell friends and family back home about my little adventure, it nearly broke my heart when they said “Who?”

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s when I pulled out the famous quote from William Merritt Chase, and said pretty indignantly, well, another famous artist once said “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” — William Merritt Chase, 1899. And they raised their eyebrows, like, “really?”

So that’s when I resolved to dig deeper into Cecelia Beaux’s story. Who was she and why has her legacy faded so much in the last 100 years? And what about that interesting praise from William Merritt Chase?

Wholly aside from the gender politics within that quote, Chase is making an unavoidable comparison between Cecelia Beaux (1855-1942) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Cassatt would have been the main competition for the honor, such as it is. And yet today, Mary Cassatt is a household name and Cecelia Beaux is not.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Beaux and Cassatt’s Beginnings

Cassatt and Beaux had much in common. They each had French blood: Beaux’s father was from Avignon, Cassatt’s ancestors on her father’s side were French Huguenots from Normandy. Both Cassatt and Beaux spoke fluent French, which might just seem like an interesting coincidence, but then, they both found success in Paris art circles, which is no small thing for an American.  Beaux later attributed her talent to “the priceless heritage” she received from her French father, who did indeed have some natural talent for art, often drawing charming little animal sketches for his daughters.

Both Beaux and Cassatt were raised in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. Their well-off families could afford to support their art studies, although the Levitt-Beaux family was less so due to some reversals and hardships, including business failures and the death of Cecelia’s mother 12 days after her birth. However, both families still considered themselves “proper” and tended to follow the social proprieties of the Victorian era, which limited the opportunities for their daughters.

Cassatt (1844-1926) was a decade older than Beaux (1855-1942), but they both started studying art at a very young age, first privately and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, Cassatt from 1860-1862, Beaux from 1876-1878.

Together, their stories reflect the achingly slow pace of change in 19th century art studies for women. Cassatt studied in PAFA’s Antique Class (copying from plaster casts) from 1860-62 during the “fig leaf era,” a time when women were deemed too sensitive to observe sculpture in mixed company unless the male sculptures were discreetly adorned with fig leaves. There were no life drawing classes for women. In 1860, Cassatt’s class of women did receive permission to pose for each other, but it would only be for one hour at a time in a private modeling room and without an instructor. And one would assume with their clothes on. Given these restrictions, Cassatt left the United States to travel and study art in Europe with her family in 1865, when she was only 21 years old.

In case you missed it, I’ve previously written about Mary Cassat in Paris and in her country homes outside of Paris, Chateau de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Theribus and Bachivillers, France.

Beaux’s Art Studies in Philadelphia

Unlike Cassatt, Beaux studied art in Philadelphia for over 10 years, beginning at age 16. Her studies would be very start-and-stop as she hopped from one teacher to another, and given the limitations of her early instruction, her talents would be slow to develop. Which just goes to show that Linda Nochlin (author of “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”) was right, it really does matter how you study art and with whom.

From the beginning, Beaux’s studies were subject to the approval of her uncle, William Foster Biddle, not her father. Beaux’s father had returned to France in 1861 after his American textile business failed, and did not return for 12 years. He left his daughters in the hands of their grandmother, their aunts and their Uncle Will, who would act as the patriarch of the family.

By the time Beaux was 16 years old, it was clear she did not excel in her academic studies at the Lyman School for Girls. “My reports were not bad, but they were not very good,” admitted Beaux. In 1871 Uncle Will decided she could quit school and pursue art studies instead. He sought not professional instruction but a ladylike approach suitable for a young woman who would soon be thinking of marriage.

Professional art classes at the PAFA were out of the question. The progressive women students of PAFA had filed a petition to enroll in life drawing classes. While the petition was granted in 1868, they were only allowed to use female models. Still, Uncle Will would not have approved. He was spared that decision because in 1870, PAFA closed its doors in order to build a new building with much more room for art classes. His niece would need to study elsewhere.

The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Standing since 1876, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Will was able to make what he thought to be a thoroughly safe choice for Beaux’s first teacher: his own relative Catherine Ann Drinker (“Aunt Kate”), who had already studied at PAFA and opened her own studio by the age of 30. As Beaux herself said, “I think that, secretly, my uncle shrank from launching me away from the close circle of home, and thought that if I must go out, I could not be in a safer place.” Beaux’s studies with Drinker, which started in 1871 and lasted only a year, consisted of making conté crayon copies of lithograph copies of Greek sculptures. (So in other words, Beaux would be 3 times removed from actual contact with a real live model. Can’t get much more proper — or inadequate — than that.)

It turned out that Beaux was frustrated with her drawings at Catherine Drinker’s studio, calling them “correct and ugly, a hateful travesty to the eyes.” But Drinker offered a different kind of education: what the life of a professional female artist could be like. It turns out it was more sophisticated and social than Uncle Will had expected. Drinker invited Beaux to stay at the studio after lessons were over and to join her artistic circle of friends. Beaux was inspired but Uncle Will was not pleased.

When Drinker became engaged to one of the men in her circle (a man 8 years younger, go Aunt Kate!), she recommended that Beaux sign up for art school. Knowing Uncle Will would expect a segregated class for women, Drinker recommended a class offered by the Dutch artist Francis Adolf Van der Wielen.

Beaux entered Van der Wielen’s class in 1872, but was required to prove herself proficient in enlargements and perspective in order to be promoted to the Antique Class, where she would draw copies of plaster casts.

Drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an "Antique Class"

Undated photo of a drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an “Antique Class.”

In her autobiography, Beaux offers a delightful rant that explains exactly why copying from plaster casts was such an “impoverished” way to study art.

I soon found myself before a large piece of white paper and one of the plaster busts. It was not the head of the Medici Venus, which I had never seen, of course, but something like it, and even less interesting, and it was placed in a broad hard light and had no silhouette, or mystery of lighting, no motivity. It was an object which took me nowhere and brought me nothing, as I now see, because it represented a series of contradictions. I suspect that it was a Roman bust, and without original impulse. Of course, it had the highly sophisticated syntheticism of the Greek ideal for its origin, but refined away to negative import and diluted artificialdom, it had only in the plaster pretended substance, which the marble would have made existent and absolute, even in abstraction.

The surface of plaster of Paris gives no clue to its substance, though the forms it is the mould of were decisive, though abstract. So firm, in fact, that thinking back to the original that must have been, the idea of youthful body, tender cheek, lip and throat, seem to have been qualities to be rejected.

Beaux wrote these impassioned words nearly 60 years later, after she had spent most of her life painting with live models. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a better explanation why women needed to be allowed to draw and paint from life, and not the cheap plaster casts available in their “Antique Classes.”

Beaux’s fondest memory of her year with Van der Wielen was when a fellow student brought in a gift from her fiancé, a young doctor, complete set of bones of the skull. The students copied them all in pencil, enjoying the play of organic curves, modeling and lighting for the first time. Years later, Beaux credits this knowledge of the human skull for giving her a “predilection for portraiture, and the manifestations of human individuality. I always saw the structure under the surface, and its capacities and proportions.”

Classes at Van der Wielen’s would end in 1872, when a female student “succumbed to the manly charms of our director,” and with “her ample fortune floated them away, far from the ennui of class exercises in drawing.” (Isn’t Beaux hilarious?)

Van der Wielen’s departure would lead to a teaching opportunity for Beaux. Catherine Drinker stepped into Van der Wielen’s position and in 1872, Beaux stepped into Drinker’s post as a part-time art teacher at Miss Sanford’s School for Girls. Beaux taught for 3 years. In 1874, Uncle Will introduced Beaux to a printer and she was offered her first professional illustration assignments, including a commission to illustrate fossils for a book on paleontology. In 1876, she would have attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and was most likely inspired to enroll in additional art instruction of her own.

Although Beaux denies it in her autobiography (interesting, that in 1930, after a long successful life in international art circles, she would still feel the need to defend her propriety), in 1876, the new PAFA building was completed and 21 year-old Celia Beaux enrolled in the antique, costume and portrait classes.

Why the reversal for Uncle Will? For one, his fortunes had turned around and by 1876, there was plenty of money for more art classes for Beaux. Perhaps Uncle Will saw her as a more serious artist with professional potential, or perhaps Beaux was one of those insistent young women who finally wear down their father figure. Beaux even signed up for the life drawing class with the famous instructor Thomas Eakins, but only attended once. (I’ll bet she didn’t mention that to Uncle Will.) By this time, the women of PAFA were allowed to draw and paint nude models, although male models were required to wear a loincloth.

 

Woman's Life Class

Alice Barber Stephens, The Women’s Life Class (illustration for William C. Brownell, “The Art Schools of Philadelphia, Scribner’s Monthly 18 Sept. 1879)

 

Beaux claimed that she avoided Eakins’ class because of Uncle Will’s “chivalrous and Quaker soul,” but in truth she might have quickly realized in just one session that Eakins’ life class was ripe for rumor and scandal. Although Eakins was greatly admired by many of his female students and has since been recognized as one of the most progressive teachers of the era with his emphasis on anatomy and the live human form, he would be forced to resign his PAFA teaching post in 1886 amidst allegations that he encouraged the female students to pose in the nude, that he exposed himself to a female student, and that he lifted a loincloth from a male model in the women’s life class.

Beaux only pursued her studies at PAFA for a couple of years. It is possible that her uncle, who had been generously supporting her studies, decided that two years was enough. It’s also possible that life just got in the way, as it is known to do. These years were a time of courtship for Beaux and her older sister, which brought its social and domestic distractions.

When Beaux’s older sister Etta married Henry Sturgis Drinker in 1879 and Beaux had no acceptable offer of her own, Beaux turned back to art classes. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beaux found no man who was more interesting than her art.

This time she would study china painting, a popular decorative craft that would have given Beaux something from which to make a living. After lessons at the National Art Training School of Philadelphia, she started to make money painting portraits of children on porcelain plates. She gave it a try for awhile but kind of hated it: “I remember it with gloom,” she admitted in her autobiography. From the image below, you can tell that Beaux’s ability to get a likeness is developing, but that her subject appears utterly joyless. (Then again, maybe he was a joyless little snot and she nailed it.)

Working Title/Artist: Plaque: Cecilia BeauxDepartment: Am. Decorative ArtsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, Digital File DT5403.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 3_27_12

Cecelia Beaux, Child on Porcelain Plaque (1880), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (not on display)

 

 

 

 

 

Beaux’s Turning Point: Life Classes

The turning point for Beaux came in 1881, when at the age of 26 a friend from her early days at the Lyman School invited her to join a life drawing and painting class supervised by William Sartain, a French-educated artist and successful New York professional. It would be the first time Beaux would ever take classes with a live model. She clicked with Sartain’s gentle style. Beaux began painting portraits with confidence and inspiration. Her work took a huge step forward.

 

When Beaux wrote about her first life classes 50 years later, you can just feel the powerful impact the experience had on her:

… the unbroken morning hours, the companionship, and, of course above all, the model, static, silent, separated, so that the lighting and values could be seen and compared in their beautiful sequence and order, all this was the farther side of a very sharp corner I had turned, into a new world which was to be continuously mine.

Sartain was one of those rare artists who was also a magnificent teacher. Beaux describes his ability to communicate his vision:

What I most remember was the revelation [Sartain’s] vision gave me of the model. What he saw was there, but I had not observed it. His voice warmed with the perception of tones of color in the modeling of cheek and jaw in the subject, and he always insisted upon the proportions of the head, in view of its power content, the summing up, as it were, of the measure of the individual.

This ideal, the most difficult to attain in portraiture, is hidden in the large illusive forms; the stronger the head, the less obvious are these, and calling for perception and understanding in their farthest capacity.

When our critic rose from my place and passed on, he left me full of strength to spend on the search, and joy in the beauty revealed; what I had felt before in the works of the great unknown and remote now could pass, by my own heart and hands, into the beginning of conquest, the bending of the material to my desire.

What moxy! Beaux’s world had just exploded with confidence and inspiration. She would soon begin her own conquest of the art world, “bending material to her desire.”

 

Cecelia Beaux’s Portrait Career is Launched

It was about this time that Beaux rented her own art studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia (at first shared with cousin Emma Leavitt) and began painting portraits in earnest. The PAFA Archives contain some interesting photographs of the cousins in their studio in the 1880s.

In 1883, Beaux found herself in the “large barren studio” with tall ceilings and full light, dreaming of a large picture. She began to sketch a composition in the style of Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Gray and Black #1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), which she would have seen at the Centennial Exhibition of 1881. Beaux’s sister agreed to pose for the oversized canvas along with her wiggly 3 year-old son. She claims that “the presiding daemon spoke French in whispering the name of the proposed work”: Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance. Even if you don’t speak French you can still somehow understand “the last days of infancy” and the bittersweet intimacy that conveys.

beaux les derniers jours

Celia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (1883-5), oil on canvas, 46 x 54, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

 

It took Beaux two years to finish the double portrait. She had never before done anything but heads. Here she had to figure out not only the full body, but the interaction of the two, as well as a background, table and flowers. And then the rug, which is way more difficult than it looks. (I know, I’ve tried it. My needlepoint rug looked great, but completely overpowered the rest of the painting.) It was ambitious to say the least. She received regular criticism from her former teacher William Sartain, who stopped by her studio whenever he could get away from New York, but other than that, she kind of figured it out on her own. She was 30 years old when she entered it into the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy and won the Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a female artist.

Now she was on a roll. She would soon complete Ethel Page as Undine (1885) — again, on her own in her own studio without dedicated instruction — and would win the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy for the second year in a row. Beaux would work on over 40 portraits in the next few years, seeking to distinguish herself as a serious professional and not a dilettante, much like Mary Cassatt did in France.

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

The Paris Salon

Beaux’s biggest triumph as an up-and-coming artist would come in 1887 when her friend and fellow artist Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown offered to take Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance to Paris and to submit it to the Paris Salon on Beaux’s behalf. Bush-Brown was a friend from PAFA who had studied in Paris at Académie Julian with Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, as well as Carolus-Duran and Jean J. Henner. Bush-Brown carried the painting on the top of a cab to the studio of Jean Paul Laurens for his advice. Laurens urged Bush-Brown to send it to the Salon. Despite Beaux’s lack of connections in the Paris art world, it was accepted. As Beaux said in her autobiography:

It had no allies; I was no one’s pupil, or protégée; it was the work of an unheard-of American. It was accepted, and well hung on a centre wall. No flattering press notices were sent me, and I have no recorded news of it. After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts.

Beaux describes how she sat and stared at her painting when it was returned to her in Philadelphia, resolving to go to Paris herself to continue her studies.

I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it,. The handling by employés; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well; . . .

But there was no voice, no imprint. The prodigal would never reveal the fiercely longed-for mysteries. Perhaps it was  better so, and it is probable that before the canvas, dumb as a granite door, was formed the purpose to go myself as soon as possible.”

 

 

Next Post: Celia Beaux in France

 

 

Sources and for Further Reading:

Cecilia Beaux, Background with Figures, Autobiography of Cecilia Beaux, Houghton & Mifflin Co. (1930)

Alice A. Carter, Cecilia Beaux, A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age, Rizzoli (2005) – although note the book cover which appears below curiously says “Victorian Age.” My copy, and I am looking at it right now, clearly says “Gilded Age.”

Sylvia Yount, et. al. Celia Beaux, American Figure Painter, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2007), accompanying the 2007-8 exhibit by the same name at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta Georgia, The Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

 

 

Hitler’s Art Thief

Do you remember hhitler's art thiefearing about the 2012 raid on the small Munich apartment that uncovered over 1,200 works of Nazi-era looted art? In this book, Hitler’s Art ThiefSusan Ronald tells the whole unbelievable story of the men behind the stash: Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-something owner of the apartment, and his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era German dealer of modern art.

This book is perfect for fans of the Monuments Men who wish for a deeper understanding of exactly how Nazi looting took place and why restitution remains so difficult. In particular, this book tries to explain what happened to the “Degenerate Art” which Hitler didn’t want, but was happy to profit from. It is a disturbing story with Hildebrand Gurlitt in the deep dark center, playing off both sides at once.

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor's office to help identify potential claimants

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor’s office to help identify potential claimants. For more information go to http://www.lostart.de.

 

But let’s fast forward to the present for an update to the latest news about the Gurlitt stash. You might have heard that when Cornelius Gurlitt passed away in May, 2014, his will donated the entire “Gurlitt Collection” to the Kunst Museum of Bern, Switzerland. Interesting that Gurlitt did not choose a German museum, isn’t it? Before his death, Gurlitt had lawyered up and was fighting the German government, objecting to their warrantless search and seizure and demands for restitution. The Kunst Museum of Bern played hot potato, denying any prior relation with Gurlitt and hiring lawyers of its own. It took several months before the museum finally agreed to accept only those paintings that had not been looted. The looted art would remain in Germany pending a lost art claims procedure.

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Since then, a further wrinkle has developed. Although Cornelius Gurlitt never married and had no children, there are two surviving cousins – Uta Werner and her brother Dietrich  Gurlitt – who have filed a legal challenge to the will. The Kunst Museum has said the donation is on hold pending the outcome of the matter in German probate court. As of October, 2015, the appellate court is considering a report by an independent psychologist regarding Gurlitt’s mental capacity to execute the will.

Either way the court decides, it appears that looted art in the Gurlitt collection will be available for restitution. Both the heirs and the museum have agreed to cooperate with efforts to locate the proper owners of the looted art.

The problem is, how do you know what’s looted if there aren’t good records? If the records are themselves fraudulent, missing or destroyed? And most tragically, when the original owners were murdered and the heirs don’t know or can’t prove what paintings are rightfully theirs?

In many cases, Hildebrant Gurlitt bartered and traded “degenerate art” for traditional art designated for Hitler’s Fühermuseum in Linz, Austria, but sometimes he just sold it on his own account for his own personal profit, making it all more difficult to track. Sometimes Gurlitt just held onto it and hung it on his own walls.

After the war, Gurlitt tried to sell some of the art for personal profit, but found it more and more difficult to explain their provenance or to find a way to launder them. So when Hildebrandt died in 1958, his son inherited the stash. Apparently, Cornelius couldn’t figure out how to sell it off either. And so it sat until 2012.

Out of the 1,407 pieces of artwork discovered in the Munich apartment, and another 60-plus in two different homes that Cornelius Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, Austria, there are about 970 artworks under provenance investigation. According to the Lost Art Internet Database, the Task Force has categorized about 380 of them as “degenerate art,” which were for the most part confiscated from public collections and museums. The Task Force is investigating another 590 works for evidence of Nazi-era looting.

Although this Task Force was formed in 2013, only four pieces of art in the Gurlitt Collection have been identified as looted and only two have been returned to their lawful owners. One of these is Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach (1901).

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), sold by the heirs of David Friedmann in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby's auction in London.

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), part of the “Gurlitt Art Trove.” The Gurlitt Estate Task Force  returned this painting to the heirs of its original owner, a Jewish art collector in Germany. The heirs sold it in in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London.

When the news broke about the Gurlitt treasure trove, a 90 year-old New York attorney named David Toren recognized Two Riders on a Beach from his childhood. He could recall seeing it at his uncle’s estate in Germany just before the war. Although most of Toren’s relatives died in the holocaust, Toren survived because he had been sent on a Kindetransport to Sweden in 1939. Torn submitted a claim the Gurlitt Task Force but encountered so many delays that he filed suit in 2014.

In May, 2015, the Task Force finally agreed to grant Toren’s demand for restitution. They confirmed that the Nazis had forced the sale of Toren’s uncle’s German estate (along with Two Riders on a Beach which hung inside) to a Nazi General who planned to use the lodge as his retreat during the upcoming invasion of Poland. The painting would have been considered “degenerate art” and thus ended up in the hands of the modern art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt was supposed to find a buyer and to sell it on behalf of the Third Reich, but ended up keeping it for the rest of his life.

To learn even more behind the true story of this and the hundreds of Gurlitt’s other stolen works of art, you’ll have to read the book in its entirety. It’s a fascinating book, but sadly, the story is not nearly over. It is likely there is even more of Gurlitt’s looted art collection stashed away in secret places.

For further reading on the subject of Nazi looted art:

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Lady in Gold in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Hare with Amber Eyes in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Art, Books, Paris, The Hare with Amber Eyes

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris

Little Woman in Blue: The Story of May Alcott Nieriker

I just finished Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, the fictionalized life story of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott Nieriker. Fans of Little Women will remember the artistic little sister Amy from Little Women, but in this book the real May gets her own voice and tells her own true and timeless story.

little woman in blue

In Little Women, Amy gives up art in favor of a marriage to the wealthy neighbor Laurie, spending the rest of her life as a genteel society woman and devoted mother.

In Little Woman in Blue, Atkins reveals that the real May did no such thing; in fact, May was ahead of her time in her desire to “have it all.” But she met criticism from both sides. Her parents said they “didn’t raise our daughters to earn a living” and believed that “motherhood is woman’s highest calling.”

But it was the criticism and advice from her own sister that May struggled with the most. Louisa May, who attained literary success but never married, didn’t seem to take May seriously. Louisa May often discouraged May’s pursuits, criticizing May’s artwork quite publicly. On the other hand, Louisa May did pay for May’s art studies in Paris. Oh my goodness, what a complicated relationship those sisters had.

Even Mary Cassatt, who May befriends during her years in Paris, says “. . . women must choose. We can be artists or mothers.” Cassatt was known to be highly critical of amateur women artists who didn’t do serious work. “It’s best to be thankful to miss the danger of childbirth, then the diapers, the scuffles, and the noise,” she warns.

The scenes with May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were some of my favorite passages of the book. In what must have been the spring of 1878, they go on a stroll to watch deliverymen carrying paintings into the jury for the Paris Salon (the same jury that would accept May’s still life but reject two of Cassatt’s). Later, May visits Mary Cassatt’s studio to find her finishing up “a sulky girl in a lacy dress sprawled on a big blue chair,” no doubt referring to one of my favorite Cassatts: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Finally, Cassatt invites May to view the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 in which Cassatt made her impressionist debut.

May refuses to be discouraged by Cassatt’s professional advice, and instead takes her inspiration from Berthe Morisot, who by that time had married Eugène Manet, given birth to their daughter Julie, and still kept painting. As Mary Cassatt said to May: “She has a strong will and a bonne to help with the child.” (Ah yes, the key to every working woman’s success.)

If you don’t know the rest of May’s story I won’t spoil it here. It’s a timeless story about persistence, hope, imagination and regret. I highly recommend that you read the whole book for yourself. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the interview I had with the author Jeannine Atkins, in which we discuss women, art and the story of May Alcott Nieriker.

Q: In your book, Louisa May Alcott was a difficult woman. Although you softened her a bit, Mary Cassatt was known to be quite difficult as well. So it made me wonder, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these women successful because they were tough and uncompromising, or were they difficult because of the unusual challenges they faced as ambitious, talented women of that era? Is “difficult” a gendered judgment in a world where mothers say “we didn’t bring up our girls to earn a living”?

A: What great questions. I’m sorry the only honest answer is that I don’t know, but perhaps that’s where complicated questions lead. And I’m happy to speculate, which novelists get to do! Journals and memoirs suggest that Louisa was often carefree in her youth, despite the family’s hardships. Louisa notes a change in herself after the Civil War, when she was given calomel to treat the typhoid fever she caught as a nurse, and which we now know gave her mercury poisoning. Some of what we might call “difficulty” certainly came from physical pain.

I think May saw a bit of her sister in Mary Cassatt, in that uncompromising drive toward art, and the way she chose a life without the comforts and compromises of a sustained romance or partnership. Mary Cassatt seemed to show a softer side in her relationship to her sister and women friends, and her paintings celebrate such tenderness, but was also driven as both an artist and businesswoman, promoting both her own work and that of other Impressionists. Both Louisa Alcott and Mary Cassatt became wealthy due to their own efforts, and I hope they felt some quiet satisfaction in that.

Re your last question, I think that even today we tend to be harsher on uncompromising women than we are on men. I can think of some pretty harsh language that is reserved for women who persevere at work.

Q: I was shocked at the unflattering preface that Louisa wrote in May’s Concord Sketches book and I assume it’s true. I’ve seen some of May’s artwork and I would agree that her talent at times appears undeveloped. To call her a student was probably fair, unless of course, you’re family and you should know it’s better to be kind than right. Why you think Louisa wrote it the way she did? Of course, I don’t have a sister, so maybe that understanding will evade me. 

A: I was floored when I opened Concord Sketches and saw the work within described in the preface as valuable for its subject matter, though not its execution. It’s one thing to critique verbally, and another to put it in print. Also, I can’t fathom what the publisher was thinking: how could this possibly help sell a book?

Louisa was enormously critical of her own work. She enjoyed writing Gothic or lurid tales, but those who’ve read Little Women know she felt embarrassed by her interest in such, which Jo March’s beau chastised. Louisa had nothing good to say about Little Women, which would become almost instantly a bestseller and has never gone out of print. So being critical was her way of being, and she saw it as part of her role as a sister who was eight years older than May. Louisa left home to work at sixteen, when May was still a child. Some sisters can find it hard to see their grown siblings as they are, and Louisa came down hard on May, until it was rather too late.

Q: How much fact vs. fiction is involved in your story about May’s Boston art lessons with William Rimmer? I loved the tough advice you had him give to May, and it seems clear that she would have benefitted from additional instruction at that level. Was Rimmer known to have been inappropriate with women students, or was that a creative inspiration? I loved the way you had May blame and punish herself for the incident in the hall.

A: There are records of some of William Rimmer’s lessons and even guidebooks to the teaching artists of the time that would be considered libelous in ours. He had a bit of a reputation. I did make up the incident in his class but it seemed plausible to me. In classes today, there’s certainly still abuse of sexual power from instructors, and I know of young women who stopped taking classes or even making art in reaction to remarks made by professors. I hardly think such is new, or the self-blaming that often happens, and wanted to show that as one of the things that impeded May and other women from getting the sort of instruction they needed and deserved.

Q: How did you do the research for the Paris chapters in the book? Did you get to go to Paris, or did you have to rely on research and imagination? What sites in Paris would be on your dream literary tour for your book?

A: I did go to Paris, but also loved combing through old guidebooks (it’s great to live near university libraries!). Enough Americans were in Paris then that I also found details in the letters of Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and others, including May Alcott’s charming small book that she wrote with a primarily female audience in mind: How to Study Abroad and Do it Cheaply. She scolded Paris teachers for charging women often three times what they charged men and encouraged women to resist. (She also mentioned the best shops not only for paints but for hats and stockings: buy your shoes in England, but gloves in Paris).

 This book is now available as a reprint online. I was also delighted to visit Dinan on your blog. My dream tour would be to visit May’s home in Meudon, where Rodin also had a studio.

Q: Where can we find images of May’s artwork online or in person? I’ve seen some of her work but I’d love to see more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen images of her two pieces that were accepted into the Paris Salon.

A: As you inferred earlier, May’s art showed talent, but didn’t reach the heights where we’d expect it to be in museums. It’s the sort of art that a proud family might put on walls, which the Alcotts did, and because of her sister’s fame, it was saved rather than possibly being stored in attics or forgotten. At Orchard House in Concord, MA, which is open to the public, you can see some of May’s work. Drawings of gods and goddesses are on her bedroom walls, as well as her portrait of an owl and a flower panel in Louisa’s bedroom. Around the house are her watercolors of landscapes, copies of Turner, and a copy of La Negresse and the still life with a stuffed owl displayed in the Paris Salon.

Q: I think you’re on to something here. Any chance you’re thinking about writing about another woman artist? I’d love to read a novel about Berthe Morisot, Celia Beaux, Rosa Bonheur, Mary MacMonnies or the Emmets. I hear there’s a novel about Georgia O’Keefe coming out soon. Any other women artists on your dream list? 

A: So many dreams, so little time. I’m not so drawn to write about someone like Georgia O’Keefe who left quite a bit of biographical information (and fabulous letters). I start in the margins. It was the brief allusions to May Alcott in biographies that pulled me in to use imagination to flesh out what wasn’t known. And I wrote Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis which is coming out from Atheneum/Simon and Schuster in spring 2017. We have some amazing facts about how Edmonia Lewis became the first person of color to gain an international reputation as a sculptor, but there were also lots of intriguing missing pieces. And a new woman with a role in the arts is taking shape at my computer, but she must stay secret until more fully formed.

Thanks so much for the excellent questions!

Links:

Orchard House http://www.louisamayalcott.org/

https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/tag/may-alcott-nieriker/

 

 

For Further Reading:

 

Little Women in Dinan, France: American Girls Art Club in Paris, a photography tour of Dinan, France in the steps of Louisa May Alcott and her sister May

Berthe Morisot’s Interior: American Girls Art Club in Paris, photos and discussion of Berthe Morisot’s Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris, American Girls Art Club in Paris, a book review and tour of the sights where an American artist studied in Paris in the same era as May Alcott Nieriker.

A list of Alcott sources from Jeannine Atkins: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/Alcott_sources.htm

 

 

Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

I’d never even heard of this slim little book, Travels in Vermeer by Michael White, until the National Book Award Longlist for 2015 was released a few weeks ago. I suspected I would enjoy an art-themed travel memoir in the words of a poet, so I ordered it right away. And oh my goodness. What a revelation. I feel like I found an soulmate in art and travel.

travels in vermeer

 

 

This book is indeed “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art” (Kirkus Reviews). We join Creative Writing Professor Michael White on his year-long quest for peace, sobriety and healing following the death of his first wife and his divorce from his second. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, but he’s soothed and inspired by the sight of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum.

 

 

Johannes Vermeer, The MIlkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1658-1661), oil on canvas, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Just study this painting, as Michael White did at the beginning of his book. The milk — the nail on the wall — the Delft tiles — the seeds on the bread — the dirty chipped walls — the ultramarine blue apron — the beautiful foreshortened arm grasping the handle of the pitcher. And what is that object in the lower right corner? A space heater/foot warmer, commonly understood to represent lust in Dutch genre paintings. (What? Whoa, this painting just got way more complicated.) I have seen this painting in person myself, and it’s true, it’s mesmerizing.

Michael White’s quest begins here, in front of The Milkmaid, when his scalp begins to tingle. “Why do I feel this sweet sensation of joy?” he asks, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Moose, which after describing the sight of a moose in the middle of a country road, also wonders:

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?

White knows he must pursue this question, that his redemption and recovery might depend on it. Pouring over a Vermeer catalog on a park bench near the Rijksmuseum (that’s another thing deserving of wonder: the joys to be discovered in museum bookshops) White learns there are only 35 Vermeers in the world in only a handful of museums. He comes up with an itinerary that will take him from the Mauritshuis at the Hague, to the National Gallery in D.C., the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kenwood House, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery in London.

The only thing missing from this book is illustration. I get it, this isn’t a $75 art book for the coffee table, but I’m already picturing an expanded illustrated edition à la The Hare with Amber Eyes. A girl can dream. Maybe if it wins the National Book Award?

As it is, I had to be happy with Google and my iPhone. Each time White came to a new painting, I had to call it up and look along in order to fully appreciate the text. So I armchair-traveled along with White and studied these public domain/fair use images:

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), The Mauritius, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (c. 1662-1668), oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Luckily for White, this painting was on loan to the Mauritshuis in the Hague at the time of his visit, saving him a separate trip to Vienna.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delt (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1661), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. As White points out in the book, this is a very small painting, only about 7 x 9 inches. And yet. Look at the chair — the scarf — the hat — and to me, the best of all, the highlight on her lip and her nose.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York. In the book, White tells us that his breath caught in his throat when he saw this painting: “The feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York. White points out how poorly this painting has been preserved, something we would never know by looking at a digital image. (Right there, it makes me want to run to the Frick to see for myself.)

After the Frick, Michael White visits the five Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally, he flies off to the last stop on his itinerary, London. Before that, though, White retreats into a contemplation of his two marriages, his battle for sobriety, his almost crushing love for his young daughter and his search for new love after divorce. He is in the perfectly vulnerable place to figure out just what Vermeer and his women are meant to teach him.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (c. 1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

 

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

So.

Back to the essential question: Why? Why do we love to study these paintings? And what can this do for us, aside from offering momentary pleasure or joy? What is the point? White comes to his realizations (his “aha” if you will) toward the end of the book, weaving his memories and his losses into his obsession for Vermeer. There are paragraphs toward the end that were so lovely they took my breath away.

Here’s a small taste:

When Sophia was still an infant, I remember the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze. She’d stare so seekingly into my eyes for hours – first one eye, then the other eye, and then doze off before beginning again. . . . In those first months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love. How astonishing to see and be seen, to be truly seen for the first time.

. . .

What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? . . .

 

He goes on, but it’s too beautiful for me to repeat it here. I swear, it gave me goosebumps. All of a sudden, my love of art and travel and literature, my dedication to this silly little blog, it all makes sense. I want (we all want) that “sweet sensation of joy”  that such moments bring. I am seeking (we all are seeking) to know the world, to know and be known by our loved ones. And that is what art does.

As White said, “the feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

I think you should read this memoir for yourself, you might just have “a moment” of your own. Because writing this good is as artful as a painting.

 

For Further Reading:

Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, http://www.essentialvermeer.com

Katherine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson

Even if you’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should check out her website, which will remind you how creatively she wove a number of Vermeer’s paintings into the narrative. It might make you want to read it all over again.