Friday, July 25, 2008

Fine Arts Friday: The Cradle

The Cradle by Berthe Morisot, 1872

I love this painting by Berthe Morisot. We see a mother (Morisot's sister) contemplating her infant. She does not appear worried or fretful. She is just quietly watching her child sleep. What I find singularly wonderful about this painting is the celestial blue in the veil of the cradle and in the curtain behind. I remember looking at my infant daughter as she lay sleeping. Wonder was the feeling that filled me. Heretofore, this tiny beautiful little person did not exist and here she was--filling me with joy at every moment. Where did this miracle come from? And looking at her sleeping in perfect peace, with her little beautiful mouth, and little hands, I felt as if I was brushing the edge of heaven. So I was intrigued by Morisot's choice of heavenly blue to envelope her rendering of a mother's contemplation of her new child. Likewise, the child is behind a veil--we see the miracle of life behind a veil of mystery, but its joy gives us a glimpse of heaven.

Morisot uses the same kinds of celestial blues in her breakthrough painting, The Harbor at L'Orient, painted in 1869, in which she broke out of the brownish, Corot-like mold of her previous paintings and into her own palette. In this case, she added a frontal figure who invites us to look at the harbor through her eyes. Here again, we see two gorgeous tones of blue--in the sky and in the water. I don't know if Morisot's use of these tones is unique--they somehow remind me of Constables skies--but to me they make both The Cradle and The Harbor at L'Orient extraordinary paintings that invite contemplation themselves.

The Harbor at L'Orient, 1869

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Life and Death in a Corn Field

A dear friend pointed me to this story today on At Home with the Farmer's Wife. I hope you can take the time to read it. Over the weekend I read parts of the author's accompanying The Farmer's Wife, which chronicles in photography and well-informed and wise commentary the passing away of rural life in northern Illinois. I intend to read it all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Pancakes, Anyone?"

Yes, it's true. Pancakes are what this woman has on her mind. The lady is Dorian Leigh Parker, the very first supermodel, whose name was a household item in the 40s and 50s. She started modeling at the late age of 27 and eventually joined the Ford modeling agency on the condition that they also take her sister, Suzy Parker--sight unseen.

She came to my attention somehow last week, because she died this month, at the age of 91. Her obituary in the Times of London begins: 'Dark-haired, blue-eyed, 5ft 5in tall, with an hourglass figure and exquisite features, Dorian Leigh appeared on no fewer than six covers of Vogue in 1946, and, over the next six years, graced the covers of 50 more glossy magazines.

"She played muse to a clutch of photographers – Avedon, Beaton, Blumenfeld, Horst and Penn among them – and in the 1950s became the signature model for Revlon's Fire and Ice lipstick and nail polish campaign in a series of images, photographed by Richard Avedon with the advertising slogan: 'For you who love to flirt with fire; who dare to skate on thin ice.' Avedon later stated that she was the most versatile model, and the loveliest, that he had ever worked with.

"In his Photobiography (1951), Cecil Beaton observed that Dorian Leigh was able to convey 'the sweetness of an 18th-century pastel, the allure of a Sargent portrait, or the poignancy of some unfortunate woman who sat for Modigliani'; but he also noted that she was as demanding as those who photographed her." The photo above is by Avedon.

She led an exhausting life, marrying five times (with numerous affairs in between or on the side) and giving birth to five children.

But, it turns out, as is so often the case, that there was another side.

As her modeling career drew to a close, she cultivated another of her talents: cooking. Having moved to Paris in 1959, she studied at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris and opened a successful restaurant, Chez Dorian, in southern France. In the 1970s she returned to New York, where she set up her own catering business and, according to her son, worked with Martha Stewart, developing recipes.

When one of her sons committed suicide at the age of 21 in 1977, Ms. Parker became a born-again Christian and, one presumes, mended her ways. She wrote an autobiography, published in 1980, called The Girl Who Had Everything. "I really wrote it for Kim [her deceased son], who will never read it. But perhaps other Kims and their parents may learn from my unhappy experiences."

She published two cookbooks, Doughnuts and Pancakes: From Flapjacks to Crepes. It is hard to imagine two cookbooks more at odds with being a supermodel. From the introductions to the recipes in Pancakes, it seems that Ms. Parker did ingest each kind she writes about. A native of Texas, she dedicates the book "To my sisters, Florian, Georgibell, and Suzy, in memory of those Texan women, our valiant forebears."

If you love pancakes, and I do, this is the book for you. Ms. Parker includes a short history of pancakes and their ubiquity in civilized life over the ages and personal reminiscences of pancakes cooked by her father (who disapproved of her modeling), and offers recipes for three types: breakfast, savory, and dessert. They all looked great to me!

Monday, July 7, 2008

A French Mrs. Miniver

In the Dining Room by the French painter Berthe Morisot (1848-1891), sister-in-law and colleague of Eduard Manet and a French Impressionist.

A French Mrs. Miniver is the subject of a short story, "Through Pity and Terror," by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her The Bedquilt and Other Stories. The story concerns a model wife and mother in France in the days just before and immediately after the outbreak of World War I.

The heroine's name is Madeleine, and in the first few pages of the story, Dorothy Canfield describes her and how she keeps her home. The linen closet inventory is described in details: the beautiful linens, wool blankets, and other exquisite household items that had been handed down to her by her family and that she had brought to her marriage with the town pharmacist, Jules Brismantier. As a child and youth, Madeleine had been "put through the severe and excellent" French public school but had married before going on to higher education and when her first child was born, "reverted rapidly to type, forgot most of her modern education, and became a model wife and mother on the pattern of of all the other innumerable model wives and mothers in the history of her family. She lived well within their rather small income, and no year passed without their adding to the modest store of savings which had come down to them because all their grandmothers had lived well within their incomes."

"Such intelligent comfort that reigned in the Brismantier household," notes Canfield, "is only to be had at the price of diligent and well-directed effort.... Madeleine planned her busy day the evening before and was up early to begin it. The house was always immaculate, the meals always on time... and always delicious and varied.... The children were always as exquisitely fresh and well cared for as only European children of the better classes used to be, when household help was available at preindustrial pittance payments.... Madeleine's religion was to keep them spotless and healthful and smiling; to keep Jules' mouth always watering in anticipation [of meals]; to help him with his accounts in the evenings; ... to keep her old garden flowering and luxuriant; to keep her lovely old home [an apartment above the pharmacy] dainty and well-ordered; and, of course, to keep herself invariably eat with the miraculous neatness of French women, her pretty, soft chestnut hair carefully dressed, her hands white and all her attractive person as alluring as in her girlhood."

In the summer of 1914, Madeleine was preparing for the birth of her third child in September, sewing and embroidering the baby clothes and blankets to greet the newborn and waiting in anticipation for her mother to come and help her give birth. But then, in August, hour by hour, Madeleine's life was engulfed with terror. Her husband was mobilized to go to war. When the town's inhabitants fled the oncoming Germans, Madeleine, about to give birth, stayed in her home with her children as the town was drained of all but its religious and the mayor. The rest of the story tells how Madeleine survived the German invasion and destruction of the town and her home, how she gave birth alone in the midst of it all, and how she outwitted her German tormenters. Model wife and mother found the determination and courage to defend herself and her children and her country.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Inside Abe Lincoln's Log School

Abe Lincoln's log school house, as shown in Edward Eggleston's A First Book in American History, published in 1889. Amenities? No. Playgrounds? No. Education? Yes.

This year’s presidential candidates—under the media’s gun to limit their statements to byte size—would do well to study the Gettysburg Address as a model of efficient prose. In a mere 287 words, President Abraham Lincoln gave Americans the most profound expression of the meaning of our republic.

What produced Lincoln’s awesome command of the English language? While Lincoln said his time in a classroom totaled no more than one year, a peek inside that log-cabin schoolroom gives some idea of the culture that produced the sixteenth President. In 1815, at the age of six, Lincoln first went to school in Knob Creek, Kentucky. The schoolmaster was Zachariah Riney, a native of Maryland, who came to Kentucky to teach students spanning many ages in a one-room school with a dirt floor and without windows.

The primary text in Mr. Riney’s classroom was Dilworth’s Speller: A New Guide to the English Tongue, produced in 1740 by Thomas Dilworth, an English schoolmaster. The rudiments of reading were taught with the alphabet and words such as rat, rate; rid, ride; rot; rote; van, vane. But the content of the reading focused on morals and maxims with short sentences such as: “Amend your way of life,” “I love the humane,” “Uplift the lowly,” “Brevity is the soul of wit.” As one educator has noted: “Except for mathematics, the child who mastered old Dilworth, dog-eared, worn, and re-covered with oilcloth or gingham though it might be, learned more of writing and speaking than is often taught in the first ten years of public education today.”

Morals made up the writing exercises, along with sentences written for each item on lists of synonyms, homonyms, and antonyms.

The first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address as drafted by Lincoln.

With the older students, Mr. Riney conducted a writing exercise that may well have helped form the Gettysburg Address. He would present his thoughts on a topic of some moral significance, such as good neighborliness. He would read from the Bible on the subject, perhaps read a poem, tell stories to illustrate it, and also ask the children to contribute their thoughts on the matter. Then Mr. Riney would pick one scholar to go up to the slateboard and write “the heart of the matter.” The student would write a sentence or so. Once the content of the “heart of the matter” had been settled, Mr. Riney went carefully through the sentences, excising any unnecessary words. He called this “making a short phrase carry a long thought.” He used frontier metaphors to explain his meaning: “Applesauce is good, but apple butter is better. We want to learn to boil down a bushel basket of words until they fit into a gallon crock with the lid on tight.”

It is easy to see some sharp contrasts between Mr. Riney’s methods and today’s norms. First, no time was wasted in the classroom on trivia. Second, education was suffused with the teachings of morality rooted in religion. Thirdly, textbooks introduced children to the best of English literature from the get-go.

Was the education offered in 1815 frontier America better than what we have today?

See Donna's Comment to this post for information on the headmaster of the colonial Skippack School.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The French Gift for Prosaics

The Diligent Mother by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1799)

Donna's comment on Pocket Money 3 prompts me to post some of the sources for my thinking about the French gift for prosaics--or the attention to detail in the caring of people in everyday life. Thank you, Donna! She notes that the postings on Pocket Money reminded her of the article on Anna Karenina and Prosaics--me too and it was a wonderful surprise! The great painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin picked up where Dutch painters had left off to celebrate domestic life. While the entire country was undergoing Enlightenment and the strains that led to the French Revolution 10 years after his death, Chardin was portraying mostly middle-class life in the kitchen, the scullery, the nursery, the home school room--the home--and also showing the loving schooling of children in piety.

Then later it was the French who broke out of the academy and began creating the great works of Impressionism by Eduard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and others.

Two Sisters by Auguste Renoir. Looking pretty.

I have not pursued any serious research on French living styles, but read some books from my library: On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town by Susan Hermann Loomis; The Cats and the Water Bottles and Other Mysteries of French Village Life by David Bouchier; and the aforementioned French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French by Harriet Welty Rochefort. I found Joie de Vivre: Simple French Style for Everyday Living by Robert Arbor and Katherine Whiteside, which I liked the best and which describes the rhythms of French daily life around mealtimes (he is a French chef with a restaurant in New York City). And everyone knows about Mireille Guiliano and her French Women Don't Get Fat and French Women for All Seasons.

I have been watching French movies lately, both because I enjoy them and also because I want to try to understand the language. I get these films from Netflix, which has an extensive library of French films. I loved the films of Marcel Pagnol's autobiography: My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle especially for their celebration of family life (despite the father's atheism). I found these charming--although I have yet to figure out exactly what I mean by this word. I also liked Les Destinees, which involves a manufacturer of Limoges china and as a bonus shows how they actually make it. It is also a family story. I am going to be watching more movies by Francois Truffaut for a while although I know they will not be like Pocket Money. I have been reading Truffaut on Truffaut (from the library) a book of fragments from interviews with this director about his movies and his unusual life. I am impressed with Truffaut's humanity. He says that the only reason to ever film children is because you love them.

The great filmaker Jean Renoir with his nanny Gabrielle Renard, as painted by Jean's father Auguste Renoir. Truffaut idolized Jean Renoir as a director and traveled to New York to meet him before the older man's death.