Edith Wharton and art, pt. 2

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

Following up on the first part on Edith Wharton and her relationship to art (as it peeks through her literature), this second part is dedicated to the short story The Quicksand (1902), published in the 1904 collection of short stories The Descent of Man, and Other Stories. It is the heartbreaking tale of a mother who, in trying to convince her son’s beloved to accept his marriage proposal, finds herself in agreement with the girl in her rejection, on the same moral scruples that she herself harbored for her husband and his professional occupation, that the girl now gives for not marrying Alan. Mr. Quentin, Alan’s father, was the owner of a scandalous sheet, The Radiator, that made obscene amounts of money by exposing the secrets of society families.

After first meeting with Hope Fenno, Alan’s intended, and trying to convince her of her folly of denying the love of a man on abstract moral reasons, Mrs. Quentin accidentally runs into her at the Metropolitan Museum six months later and finds herself rather surprised in revealing her own story to Hope, when the latter admits that Mrs. Quentin’s initial arguments (about the necessity of being practical and sort of flexible) had eventually convinced her. She relates how she first discovered what The Radiator really was, how she tried to convince her husband of selling it, and how she gradually grew accustomed to the comforts and luxuries the money bought, attempting to disassociate it from the source it came. She raised her son in it, and by the time Alan grew up, it was too late to revert to her old scruples: he was accustomed to, ‘tainted’ by the money, with no hope of ever giving it or the newspaper up.

This key scene takes place in one of the Met’s galleries, where Mrs. Quentin goes to see a painting by Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio (1466/67–1516), that has recently been added to the collection. No matter how hard I looked, in articles of the period, I could not find any reference to a Beltraffio (or Boltraffio) added to the museum’s collection that period, nor for that matter any work attributed to the painter in the collection today, apart from a drawing of a woman’s head in profile, with an attribution to Leonardo’s pupils, among which Beltraffio was documented (in the painter’s studio, in 1490). Certainly nothing that sounded similar to a painting like that in the passage, which I quote below. I am posting instead a work attributed jointly to Beltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, another of Leonardo’s pupils, which is today in the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin and which includes a landscape, that might give an idea of the “mystic blue reaches of the landscape” Wharton refers to (with no specific mention of the subject).

Giovanni_Antonio_Boltraffio_and_Marco_d'Oggiono_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_with_SS._Leonard_of_Noblac_and_Lucia_-_Google_Art_Project

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, The Resurrection of Christ with the Saint Leonard of Noblac and Lucia, around 1491, oil on poplar wood, 234.5 x 185.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

“Mrs. Quentin, in the late spring afternoon, had turned in at the doors of the Metropolitan Museum. She had been walking in the Park, in a solitude oppressed by the ever-present sense of her son’s trouble, and had suddenly remembered that some one had added a Beltraffio to the collection. It was an old habit of Mrs. Quentin’s to seek in the enjoyment of the beautiful the distraction that most of her acquaintances appeared to find in each other’s company. She had few friends, and their society was welcome to her only in her more superficial moods; but she could drug anxiety with a picture as some women can soothe it with a bonnet.

The long line of mellow canvases seemed to receive her into the rich calm of an autumn twilight. She might have been walking in an enchanted wood where the footfall of care never sounded. So deep was the sense of seclusion that, as she turned from her prolonged communion with the new Beltraffio, it was a surprise to find she was not alone.

Mrs. Quentin, in the embarrassment of surprising a secret that its possessor was doubtless unconscious of betraying, reverted hurriedly to the Beltraffio.

“I came to see this,” she said. “It’s very beautiful.”

Miss Fenno’s eye travelled incuriously over the mystic blue reaches of the landscape. “I suppose so,” she assented; adding, after another tentative pause, “You come here often, don’t you?”

“Very often,” Mrs. Quentin answered. “I find pictures a great help.”

“A help?”

“A rest, I mean…if one is tired or out of sorts.”

“Ah,” Miss Fenno murmured, looking down.

“This Beltraffio is new, you know,” Mrs. Quentin continued. “What a wonderful background, isn’t it? Is he a painter who interests you?”

The girl glanced again at the dusky canvas, as though in a final endeavor to extract from it a clue to the consolations of art. “I don’t know,” she said at length; “I’m afraid I don’t understand
pictures.”

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