Friday, November 26, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: The Sower

The famous works of Vincent van Gogh have so permeated our visual culture today--appearing in posters, on mugs, umbrellas, note cards, ties, t-shirts, calendars, etc. -- that we tend to be unaware of the huge body of work this extraordinary man left us as the fruits of barely a decade of artistic production. In viewing the Starry Night (shown here), Wheat Field with Cypresses, or the portrait of L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux), we are so startled by the vibrancy and colors of the painting that we imagine that van Gogh produced it in the high heat of a moment of pure genius. Such masterpieces were the result of genius and also van Gogh's persistent pursuit of visual truth in countless drawings and paintings of people, landscapes, and still lifes. Given the ferocity of his own efforts, it is not surprising that van Gogh found in labor of all kinds a subject for his study -- sowing wheat, planting potatoes, digging potatoes, burning weeds, cutting down wheat with a scythe, working in the vegetable garden, raking, olive picking, and resting in the field. He captured women sewing, knitting, cooking, doing the laundry, and tending children and men cutting wood, selling wood, weaving,taking their goods to market, and mending fishnets.

Continuing on the Thanksgiving theme, here are his studies of The Sower.

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

The Sower, 1888

The Sower, 1888

The Sower, After Millet, 1888

The Sower, After Millet, 1889

The Sower, Outskirts of Arles in the Background, 1888

The Sower, 1888

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

The Sower by N. C. Wyeth, 1926

We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God's almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

He only is the Maker
Of all things near and far;
He paints the wayside flower,
He lights the evening star;
The winds and waves obey Him,
By Him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, His children,
He gives our daily bread.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

We thank Thee, then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food:
No gifts have we to offer
For all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

(The Hymnal: Published by the authority of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1895. The words and music are here.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: The Chadds Ford Wyeths

Chadds Ford Hills, Newell Convers Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth was the father of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth. His son's work is noted for its muted palette, while N.C. Wyeth's paintings radiate color and atmospheric effect. If you have the opportunity, visit the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, home to many paintings by all the Wyeths.

At the museum, which I visited last year, the effects upon me of the works of N. C. Wyeth and his son were quite different. Many of Andrew Wyeth's paintings I found deeply moving, especially those with the layers of dry tempera rising from the surface of the canvas. The experience is almost religious; despite the apparent simplicity of his subject, its essence is drawn out through the paint signifying a whole world to us, each leaf seeming to drip with the cosmic significance of creation.

N.C. Wyeth's paintings awe in a different way--their human poignancy and the placement and gestures of the figures in his paintings, many of them used as illustrations, draw us into their world. We are caught up in the action; we are dying to know what happens next. The fulsomeness and beauty of the drama, surroundings, and coloration prompt in us a near reverential appreciation of both the fragility and the richness of life.

So in praise of the fall and the Wyeths, here is a painting by N.C. Wyeth of his beloved Chadd Ford Hills, for which I have no words at all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: A Benefit of Working

Scrubwoman, by John French Sloan, 1910-1911

(Click on the paintings to get a better view.)

Here is a painting of scrub women working at the Astor Library in New York City, a place I used to spend a lot of time in as a reader. I like this painting, because it does not depict these ladies as victims of poverty-mandated drudgery, but instead draws our attention to their cheerfulness: they seem to be enjoying a friendly joke, although the shading of the painting indicates that they live in a different world than the silent scholars in the next room.

An atmosphere in which jokes are welcome is a crucial factor in selecting where I work. Once when I was a waitress at a New York City diner, if I made the slightest hint of a joke, the owner would snort, "Don't get fresh, Linda." It was dreary to work there, and I didn't last long. At another restaurant I worked in, all the waitresses, the cooks, the bartender, and the hands-on manager joked all day, and half the time I was in stitches. It was fun to work there. Even today, when I am buried under mountains of work on my job (the reason for the dribble of posts these last months), although the work is difficult and can be tedious, the atmosphere is convivial--which makes the job easier. If a spoil-sport like Ebenezer Scrooge ran the place, it would be intolerable. Women on the job jabber about their children, food, clothes, shopping, doing things for one another, their hobbies and crafts. Men report to each other on food, sports, trips, and sometimes (I overhear) what they are doing to keep their wives happy.

These conversations and jokes among fellow workers relieve tension, put a downward pressure on anxiety levels, and build team spirit to get a job done. It is a benefit of working.

John French Sloan (1871-1951) was a major figure of the Ashcan School of realist artists who resisted the pull of abstractionist art in the early decades of the 20th century. Born, raised, and trained in Philadelphia, he produced most of his art in New York City, where, he wrote in his diary, "I am in the habit of watching every bit of human life I can see about my windows, but I do it so that I am not observed at it ... No insult to the people you are watching to do so unseen."

I think he had a particular knack for portraying women in conversation, as these paintings show:

Sunday Women Drying Their Hair, 1912

Three A.M., 1909

Spring Planting in Greenwich Village, 1913

Although he looks a little taciturn himself...

Self Portrait, 1890

Monday, November 8, 2010

Preparing for Advent

Advent begins on Sunday, November 28, and it may seem strange to talk about preparing for a season that is itself all about preparation, but that is how the British writer, poet, and Catholic mystic, Caryll Houselander, begins her beautiful treasure, The Reed of God, written in 1944:

That virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call emptiness is the beginning of this contemplation.

It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper's breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird's nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady's purposeful virginity was indeed like those three things.

She was a reed through with the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd's song.

She was the flower-like chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice.

She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the Divine Little Bird.

Emptiness is a very common complaint in our days, not the purposeful emptiness of the virginal heart and mind but a void, meaningless, unhappy condition.

Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties, and fears; and these sometimes further overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt, and always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless such people's lives are. Those who complain in these circumstances of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness.

They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life: they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts.

Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is circled, making a shape which in itself is an absolute promise of fulfillment.

The question which most people will ask is: "Can someone whose life is already cluttered up with trivial things get back to this virginal emptiness?"
Of course he can: if a bird's nest has been filled with broken glass and rubbish, it can be emptied.

It is not only trivialities which destroy this virgin mindedness; very often, serious people with a conscious purpose in life destroy it by being too set on this purpose. The core of emptiness is not filled by trifles but by a hard block, tightly wedged in. They have a plan, for example, for reconstructing Europe, for reforming education, for converting the world; and this plan, this enthusiasm, has become so important in their minds that there is neither room to receive God nor silence to hear His voice, even though He comes as light and little as a Communion wafer and speaks as soft as a zephyr of wind tapping on the window with a flower.

Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At least, they can allow God to restore it and ask Him to do so.

The whole process of contemplation through imitation of Our Lady can be gone through, in the first place, with just the simple purpose of regaining the virgin-mind, and as we go on in the attempt we shall find that over and over again, there is a new emptying process; it is a thing which has to be done in contemplation as often as the earth has to be sifted and the field ploughed for seed.

At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the hard blocks and congestions; not necessarily to discard all his interests for ever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and interests other than Love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had just come from God's hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being, and of what material we are made.

We need to be reminded that every second of our survival does really mean that we are new from God's fingers, so that it requires no more than the miracle which we never notice to restore us to our virgin-heart at any moment we like to choose.

Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?

Are we reed pipes? Is He waiting to live lyrically through us?
Are we chalices? Does He ask to be sacrificed in us?

Are we nests? Does He desire of us a warm, sweet abiding in domestic life at home?
These are only some of the possible forms of virginity; each person may find some quite different form, his own secret.

I mention these three because they are all fulfilled in Our Lady, so visibly that we may be sure that we can look at them in her and learn what she reveals through them.

If you would like to read more writings of Caryll Houselander, many of her books are available at Albris, Barnes and Noble, and Borders.

The painting is The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-75.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Praise of the Linen Closet

Karin Larsson at the Linen Closet, by Carl Larsson, 1906. The artist's wife is carefully inspecting her linens. I like the large size of this beautiful cupboard--which holds a lot, unlike the narrow linen closets built into the upstairs hallway in many American homes.

I have always been impressed by a beautiful linen closet, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed this passage in Joy Street, a novel written by Frances Parkinson Keyes in 1950:
One afternoon, Emily [a new bride of upper-crust Boston society in the 1930s], led her husband to the spacious linen closet and, throwing open its double doors, revealed pile after pile of snowy sheets and pillowcases and towels, gartered with satin-covered elastic to insure perfect regularity, and scented with small bags of lavender nestling between each pile.

At the Linen Closet by Pieter de Hooch, 1663. The Dutch, the first to value housecleaning and whose art celebrated domesticity, naturally took their linen closets seriously. Here the mistress of the home returns sparkling clean sheets to the linen closet. Note the child playing hockey on the floor on the right, reminding us that chaos is always on the horizon.

The scene reminded me of a similar description in the book, Sweeping the German Nation: Domesticity and National Identity in Germany by Nancy Ruth Reagin. A non-German in the early 20th century visits the home of a German professor, whose wife:
"threw back both doors of an immense cupboard occupying the longest wall in the home... [For] their happiness, they possessed all this linen: shelf upon shelf, pile upon pile of linen, exactly ordered, tied with lemon coloured ribbons."

A German housewife was expected to wash her white linen and spread it out on the lawn for bleaching so it was snowy white before being laid in the closet.

I've always appreciate Martha Stewart's ideas about the linen closet, too, reading them in her magazine quite a few years ago. Here is a Martha Stewart Linen Closet Picture Gallery and a Martha Stewart Organize the Linen Closet Checklist.

Below a Martha Stewart linen closet--I love the eyelet border hanging over the edge of the shelves. Note ribbons.