I Know Where I'm Going

Category: Paintings/Words

Anna Karenina, Mariano Fortuny, and the mystery of arrival



Mariano Fortuny, The sons of the painter in the Japanese room, 1874, oil on canvas, 44 x 93 cm., Museo del Prado, Madrid


“And in the midst of the silence, there came an unmistakable reply to the mother’s question, a voice quite unlike the subdued voices speaking in the room. It was the bold, clamorous, self-assertive squall of the new human being who had so incomprehensibly appeared. If Levin had told before that Kitty was dead and that he had died with her, and that their children were angels and that God was standing before him, he would have been surprised at nothing. But now, coming back to the world of reality, he had to make great mental efforts to take in that she was alive and well and that the creature squalling so desperately was his son. Kitty was alive, her agony was over and he was unutterably happy. That he understood. He was completely happy in it. But the baby. Whence? Why? Who was he? He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.”

Sometimes, I use audiobooks to help me sleep. I’ve been listening to Anna Karenina (a performance feat by Maggie Gyllenhaal, by the way), so around 4 or 5 in the morning, I got up, couldn’t go back to sleep, I duly noted the chapter I started listening to (because then I have to re-listen to everything, of course, since I doze off pretty quickly), and approximately two hours later and 14 chapters, I wake up, and I hear with a clarity that is almost unimaginable, the passage above. Every  single word enunciated to perfection. I don’t know why around seven in the morning, those words struck me as the truest expression of feeling, regarding the arrival of a newborn child in the world – here, from the aspect of the father, but I wouldn’t say it makes that much difference – that awe, that incapacity to understand, whence, why, who is this person. I remember clearly feeling that my son had fallen from the sky after I gave birth. I couldn’t fathom the math, the 1+1, and then three people returned from the hospital to the house. How? Sometimes, I still ask myself.

So, I am not sure what kind of post this is, if it is a literary one or what, but the photo to accompany it, naturally, was one of my most favorite paintings ever, from Mariano Fortuny, a late nineteenth-century Spanish painter – a painting whose poster I have framed in life-size format and which is hanging in my son’s room (framing posters, I used to look down to the activity as the worst kind of petty bourgeois habit, but there are few things that afford me greater pleasure than sitting across from it and staring at it for long intervals). I know that art historians can be insufferably pretentious, insisting that it’s not the same looking at reproductions, as opposed to the ‘real thing’ at a museum, but there are truly (relatively – OK, probably not true…) few things I would insist upon seeing in a gallery or a museum (one day, I’ll make a list). Fortuny’s paintings are one of those things, his brushwork is so lively, in a way that it deceives you into thinking that it’s actually swaying before your very eyes. And it’s so fortunate (pun intended) that the Prado finally, finally opened a sumptuous new wing dedicated to nineteenth-century Spanish painting, because there’s so much Greco, and Goya, and Zurbarán and Murillo a decent person can put up with, and one cannot imagine the treasures or the versatility of nineteenth-century Spanish painters (digression).

This painting, very much in the thrall of Japanese painting and un-apologetically so (suffice to look at the painted wall behind the low divan, you don’t know if things are painted on it, or just standing in front of it), he has captured his children in what looks like a late, languid Spanish afternoon, perhaps after lunch: it’s just too hot to move or play or do anything, so the children sit and lay around idly, doing pretty much nothing, which looks like bliss. These lovely creatures that have arrived, heaven knows where from and why, these inexplicable creatures, that they’re at the same time their own persons and somehow also part of us. It’s not that Fortuny’s painting captures the mystery of creation the way that Tolstoy manages, but I will always look upon this work as if it captures something of the beauty, the mystery, and – ultimately – the unknowableness of what childhood really must be.




Edith Wharton and art, pt. 2

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 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

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 1


Recently, due to poor eyesight, I discovered the pleasure (and relief) of audiobooks. As someone who reads (and reads and reads), it was so distressing not to be able to. But, through LibriVox, and its amazing volunteers, I have discovered a whole new way to get to literature. It is imperative, of course, to find one voice that suits one’s taste, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in discovering David Clarke’s impeccable reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, and Nicholas Clifford’s readings of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

The latter, especially, gave me the opportunity to discover the short stories of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, in two volumes, The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904) and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). I never fancied myself as one who appreciates the short story as a literary form, but I was surprised to find out that I did, and that I enjoyed Wharton’s short stories as much as her novels (Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence rank among the novels I most cherish). The Tales of Men and Ghosts even includes two masterful ghost stories, The Eyes and Afterward (which I strongly recommend to fans of the genre). Her stories are always evocative and ambiguous, leaving ample space for interpretation, many times with enigmatic endings. But another aspect of them that I enjoyed (as I do with James’s writing as well), were the frequent allusions to art and art objects. This is why I am devoting two posts to The Reckoning and The Quicksand, both from The Descent of Man, and Other Stories.

In The Reckoning (1902), a bitter tale of marriage and divorce, there is only a fleeting mention to painting, a deprecating reference to contemporary art – and to the profession of painters as little more than an excuse for sociable interactions. I always find the impressions of writers precious, as they denote a particular form of reception, expressed through their literary sensibility, and they frequently allow a vivid image, not only of their personal tastes and distastes, but also of those of their contemporaries.

So, without further delay, the passage from The Reckoning goes as follows: “The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife’s ‘afternoons’ from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the ‘artistic’ impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.”


Henri-Edmond Cross, Pines Along the Shore, 1896, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ‘purple grass’ and ‘green sky’ reminded me of neo-impressionist (yes, these interminable sub-categories of modernist art…) painters, such as Henri-Edmond Cross and, although a bit later, Henri Matisse’s fauvist canvases, which may provide an apt illustration of the kind of painting that Edith Wharton had in mind.


Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1906 (?), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 55.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Henri Matisse, The Riverbank, 1907, oil on canvas, 73.2 x 60.3 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel


Henri Matisse, Moroccan Landscape, 1912, oil on canvas, 115 x 80 cm, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Nabokov, landscapist



Claude Lorrain, Sunrise (detail), possibly 1646–47, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 134 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


“By a paradox of pictorial thought, the average lowland North-American countryside had at first seemed to me something I accepted with a shock of amused recognition because of those painted oilcloths which were imported from America in the old days to be hung above washstands in Central-European nurseries, and which fascinated a drowsy child at bed time with the rustic green views they depicted – opaque curly trees, a barn, cattle, a brook, the dull white of vague orchards in bloom, and perhaps a stone fence or hills of greenish gouache. But gradually the models of those elementary rusticities became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.”

View of Toledo

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), View of Toledo (detail), ca. 1598–99, oil on canvas, 121.3 x 108.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


* From the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition of Lolita (pp. 171-172).


PS. And the “mummy-necked farmer”.


Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago.



The enchanted, impressionist April


enchanted april

There is a passing reference to painting in Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (1922), more specifically to impressionism. When the subject of Lotty’s and Mellersh’s social life comes up, von Arnim writes: “whereas she and Mellersh, when they did go out, went to the parties of impressionist painters, of whom in Hampstead there were many. Mellersh had a sister who had married one of them and lived up on the Heath, and because of this alliance Mrs. Wilkins was drawn into a circle which was highly unnatural to her, and she had learned to dread pictures. She had to say things about them, and she didn’t know what to say. She used to murmur, ‘Marvelous,’ and feel that it was not enough. But nobody minded. Nobody listened. Nobody took any notice of Mrs. Wilkins.”

Although no explicit like or dislike is stated in the passage, painting does not seem to detain the author’s interest, unlike nature herself which merits some of the book’s most memorable descriptions. Pictures are also presented in opposition to nature: Lotty has no problem expressing herself enthusiastically once in San Salvatore, her ideal vacation spot in Italy, but painting apparently belongs to a specialized type of discourse, where one “has to say things” about it, things that do not come naturally.

It would be interesting then to compare some of von Arnim’s descriptions with the type of impressionist painting that devoted so much attention not only to the representation of nature as such, but to capturing the effusiveness and luscious materiality of blooming and blossoming, the same that, literally, enchanted the author.


“All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine…she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom—lovely showers of white and deep rose-color among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Color seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of color, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers—the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps—and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the great blue irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion, and only seemed the better and the more exuberant for it.”


[All works are by Childe Hassam (1859–1935), the American impressionist painter]



Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

…as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner’s pictures (p. 82).

A Pink Sky above a Grey Sea circa 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J. M. W. Turner, A Pink Sky above a Grey Sea, circa 1822, gouache and watercolor on paper, 18.8 x 22.7 cm, Tate Gallery, London (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D25412)

The beauty her features might have lacked in form was amply made up for by the perfection of hue, which at this winter-time was the softened ruddiness on a surface of high rotundity that we meet with in a Terburg or a Gerard Douw; and, like the presentations of those great colourists, it was a face which kept well back from the boundary between comeliness and the ideal (p. 122).

In an instant Bathsheba’s face coloured with the angry crimson of a Danby sunset (p. 185).

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Francis Danby, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, ca. 1824, oil on pressed card, 11.4 x 17.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1668090)

Faint sounds came from the barn, and he looked that way. Figures stepped singly and in pairs through the doors – all walking awkwardly, and abashed, save the foremost, who wore a red jacket, and advanced with his hands in his pockets, whistling. The others shambled after with a conscience-stricken air: the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman’s group of suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions under the conduct of Mercury (p. 314).

Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions 1805 by John Flaxman 1755-1826

John Flaxman, Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions, 1805, engraving and etching on paper, 17.5 x 29.8 cm, Tate Gallery, London (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/flaxman-mercury-conducting-the-souls-of-the-suitors-to-the-infernal-regions-t11219)

[All references are to the 1978 Penguin edition, reprinted in Penguin Classics in 1985]

Elective Affinities VII: Maupassant and Corot


“Elle était vêtue d’une robe de cachemire bleu pâle qui dessinait bien sa taille souple et sa poitrine grasse.

La chair des bras et de la gorge sortait d’une mousse de dentelle blanche dont étaient garnis le corsage et les courtes manches; et les cheveux relevés au sommet de la tête, frisant un peu sur la nuque, faisaient un léger nuage de duvet blond au-dessus du cou”.

Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami (1885)


Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Lady in Blue, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris (source: http://www.wga.hu/)

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Lady in Blue, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris (source: http://www.wga.hu/)


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