Saturday, May 28, 2016


As I blogged yesterday, Sargent is the painter of one of my favorite works, Fumée D’Ambris Gris. 

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose - one of Sargent's most popular paintings

How elegant! 160 years ago this year, the painter John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to nomadic American expats. Sounds romantic, but the truth is a bit sadder. Sargent’s parents became wanderers, trying to recover after the death of their firstborn, a daughter.  Once their son and then another daughter were born, his father resigned his position as an eye surgeon in America, and the family settled down to a life of travel throughout Europe.

An active and interested boy, Sargent had no formal education other than what his parents gave him in the way of basic school lessons and the wide benefits of European culture. Sargent was fluent in several languages, was widely read, widely traveled of course, and, having inherited the artistic skills of his parents, was himself an accomplished artist, as well as a fine musician. 

the charming Ruth Sears Bacon

Portraiture was the preferred artistic expression of the days of Sargent’s youth, the Victorian Era. He began formal art studies with a well-known portrait artist, and then won a place at Paris’ prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. Though not yet fully into the era of the Impressionists, artists of the time were working with paint and their techniques in new ways. Portrait artists, most of all, wanted to break out of the strict confines of the traditional poses for their subjects. Sargent excelled at landscapes, but portraits brought in the money and the publicity – he found ways to combine the two, making each more interesting. He brought interior and outdoor landscapes to his portraits, and introduced people into his landscapes. By the age of 51, Sargent, who was very popular and could charge very high prices for his portraits, was able to bid good-bye to portrait painting and concentrate almost exclusively on his landscapes.

From the outset of his career, and continuing on to this day, the discussion and criticism of Sargent’s paintings has stirred the art world. Is this or that painting an allegory, is there anything sexual or amoral about them, how did his techniques change, how was he influenced by the old master painters, how was he influenced by the modern Impressionists and Cubists with whom he associated? 

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit- a family portrait like no oher

To the majority of those who see and enjoy his paintings today the answer is “who cares?” His vast output included thousands of oils, watercolors and drawings. His works are classed as “American Renaissance,” and there is just something about his paintings that people like. They’d be comfortable to have a landscape or portrait of his hanging in their own homes. Art print dealers do a brisk business in copies of his works.  Look at pieces like Carnation, Lili, Lily, Rose, or Fumée D’Ambris Gris – not formal portraits. Look at Ruth Sears Bacon or at The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit -  portraits that are more than portraits. Look at The Oyster Gatherers at Cancale, and you’ll see why Sargent’s works are so popular today.

The Oyster Gatherers at Canca

Friday, May 27, 2016


...and I wish I could revisit it now!

When the request went out at one of our Living magazine meetings to do a piece on John Singer Sargent, I was happy to volunteer, especially since I'd blogged about his painting two years ago. Sargent, you see, was the creator of one of my favorite paintings Fumée d'ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris). (More about Sargent tomorrow.) The painting resides at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. When we lived near there for over twenty years, I was a frequent visitor to this particular place and piece.

When I first saw the painting, a majestic 64½” x 45½”, rightly voted by museum-goers as their favorite painting during the Clark’s 50th Anniversary celebration, I could get right in front of the painting, even touch it if I’d been so stupid, but I wasn’t. (A few years later, when it came back from a tour of Sargent’s paintings, they’d moved it to a more secure location and put a guard rail a good bit away from it, outside of touching range, but also, for me, out of study range.)  There is so much to see in the painting: the simplicity of the scene, the grace of her hands, and the questions of why she is censing herself, where she is, and what are the clothes she is wearing?

What absolutely amazed me was the way Sargent depicted silver and shine – the silver of the brazier and her jewelry, the shine on her polished fingernails. I’m sure I’d seen the same effects in many pictures before, but this was the first picture where I was close enough to see the brush strokes. Whew! I was absolutely bowled over, I tell you. Close up: just strokes of white paint; far away: silver and glint.

I’m sure that in your life you’ve come upon a thing or two that amazed you – this was one of mine.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


This morning I was reading on the BBC News about a man who didn’t realize that his mind was blind. He can’t make mental pictures, can’t visualize anything. The interesting article had me remembering a blog I posted four years ago. I thought I’d rerun it for you today. Researchers are discovering more and more about our brains. It’s a fascinating subject.

“The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more we tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline—and toward the details of biology. The shift from blame to science reflects our modern understanding that our perceptions and behaviors are steered by deeply embedded neural programs.”

So now I know why I am as I am: the above quote from an article in The Atlantic, “the Brain on Trial”, tells me that my brain’s circuitry is wired a certain way: my way. I suppose I am fortunate that my brain isn’t wired to make me a sneak thief or a murderer, or even on a milder basis, a gossip or hypochondriac.  Now I know what happens when I stand in front of the refrigerator looking for a snack: intellectually I know I should shut the door because I really don’t need the snack, but my circuitry overrides it all and I go ahead and eat. “I can’t help myself.” Well, I could, but I rarely do.  For such a relatively smart person, this is really dumb.

They call this a brainbow, and it shows
nerve activity
These latest discoveries about our biological makeup are opening up a huge can of worms. We’d think that intellectually, likely taught as youngsters, criminals would know right from wrong. What they know and how they behave are two different things – but should they be punished for how they act?  How their brains are wired? The worlds of medicine, law, and ethics are going to have to hash this out. 

Until these recent discoveries, criminals were criminals and were punished according to the law. Now, much like with the insanity defense, it will be a question of the criminal’s wired state of mind. No more: “he’s depraved on accounta he’s deprived.” It’ll be “he’s depraved on accounta he’s not wired too tight.” The wiring’s the thing.

Yes, I know this is a Phrenology bust, but even though it 's
about the outside of the head, not the inside, I'd never seen
such a thing before I visited Historic Brattonsville. I've been
saving this photo for quite a while. Today is the day to use it.
In the near future there may be laws not for pre-marital blood tests, but pre-marital mental tests. They say that DNA testing may be able to tell us a child’s future proclivities - that’s one of my favorite fancy words for habitual tendencies or inclinations.  Another can of worms: what will society do when confronted by evidence that a child may grow up to be, shall we say, anti-social?  Hoo-boy! 

So now that I know I think the way I do because it’s the way I’m wired, boy would I like to get inside and rewire some other folks brains. Unfortunately I can’t do that, so I’ll just have to be more understanding about the less-than-lovely traits of others. I’ll just have to say “Poor dear, she really can’t help herself. She’s wired that way.”  And I guess they’ll say that about me too!

…while googling for brain-wiring illustrations to accompany this essay I came upon The Connectome: A New Way to Think About What Makes You You, also in The Atlantic. I first read that to be connect-to-me, and actually it does connect to me.  The article gets into a little more serious stuff than I wanted to cover in my light essay, but it is quite intriguing.

Friday, May 20, 2016


April is the poet’s month. It provides them with inspiration: everything from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Chaucer’s “shoures soote,” his sweet showers. Now here comes May, the lyricist’s month. Though their work be lyric, not all poets are or were lyricists – but all lyricists are poets. Well, maybe not some of these modern fellas. Most of Lennon and McCartney, yes. Most of the current lyricists, doubtful, at least to most of the seniors around us. With some of the newer stuff it’s hard to make out, much less understand, the words being sung. There are exceptions in every instance, but we’re here to appreciate something about which we’ve usually given little thought: the beauty of the words to the tunes we love.

What’s your favorite song? What is “our song” to you and your spouse? Are you humming right along when you hear what’s playing in the supermaket? Songs from the Big Band Era, Country & Western, Blues, Folk, and Rock and Roll – pick one, it’s probably a poem set to music. Or is it music set to a poem?

Like the chicken and the egg, it isn’t always evident which came first, the lyric or the music.  For duos like Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein it could go either way – Rogers wrote the music, Hammerstein took care of the book and the lyrics.  For writers like Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer they came almost simultaneously: as a rule, both wrote both the music and the lyrics, and who could say which popped into their heads first for any one song.

But we’re here to appreciate the poetry in the songs – especially the love songs. Here are two fine examples. Think of Sinatra singing -  

         You go to my head
         With a smile that makes my temperature rise 
         Like a summer with a thousand Julys 
         You intoxicate my soul with your eyes
         Night and day, you are the one
         Only you beneath the moon or under the sun –
         Whether near to me or far
         It's no matter, darling, where you are
         I think of you day and night”

Now, those lyrics are poetry. Rhyme and meter: all the hallmarks of a lovely poem. Ah, you like free verse? Did you realize that the words to Moonlight in Vermont don’t rhyme?  As all poetry should evoke a distinct feeling, emotion, or mood, or give us a mental snapshot, these lyrics paint a picture of the seasons:

Pennies in a stream - Falling leaves a sycamore - Moonlight in Vermont
Icey finger waves - Ski trails on a mountain side - Snowlight in Vermont
Telegraph cables, they sing down the highway and travel each bend in the road.
People who meet in this romantic setting are so hypnotized be the lovely...
Evening summer breeze - warbling of a meadowlark - Moonlight in Vermont

So next time you hear or sing a great song, a song from most any era, pause to appreciate the craft of the lyricist and the words that go so well with the tune. (Or does the tune go so well with the words?)

Monday, May 16, 2016


“We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.” Can’t you just hear Ella Fitzgerald singing that classic? I wonder what Peter Minuit would have thought had he heard the song in May 1626, 390 years ago, when the Dutch bought Manhattan Island.

A hundred years before, Giovanni da Verrazano, working for the French, had explored in the area on board La Dauphine, and had given names to many of the places he saw. Naming is not claiming, and he sailed on, only to be eaten by cannibals elsewhere. He left only his own name to be given to a bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island four hundred and forty years later.

No beads: beads they had. And none of those other trinkets either.

The Dutch knew a good place when they bought it. Fish and game were plentiful, the climate was favorable, and the natives were fairly friendly. Abundant furs were available from the vast territories to the north and west. 

The Dutch already had a fur trading settlement on what is now Governors Island, and had started a fort on Manhattan when they probably decided that they should buy the place. The legends say Minuit bought Manhattan for trinkets, beads. Not beads: beads they had. The deal was done in trade goods, worth about 60 Dutch guilders, worth a few thousand dollars in today’s money. The Canarsie people got the goods, but they didn’t live there. Like countless thousands of people today, they only worked there. They lived on Long Island and commuted regularly, and sold land that really wasn’t theirs to sell. American Indians had no concept or traditions for possession of the land. Their idea of the transaction surely differed from Minuit’s purpose to establish the colony of Nieuw Amsterdam. When you think of the value of New York City land today, the increase in value is staggering.

“So good they named it twice!” The U.S. Postal Service would like you to use the designation New York, New York, not Manhattan, in your correspondence. The most densely populated of the boroughs of the city, and even more packed when the commuters pour in, New York is the financial and cultural capitol of the United States. It is home to Wall Street, Broadway, and the United Nations, and many of the Fortune 500 companies associated with financial, cultural, and international commerce.

Manhattan Hot Spot

Many would picture the island as flat, if they think of that at all, but the name Manhattan is a derivation of the Lenape words for “island of many hills.” They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but it does seem very sleepy very early on a Sunday morning. Normally, there is so much to see and do there that the shape of the island is the last thing you notice. With only an occasional taxi cruising by, I once stood on one of the main avenues, looking north, and saw the parade of street lights rolling up and down as those hills climb toward the top of the island. Peter Minuet would be astonished. I was!

Friday, May 13, 2016


The Writer’s Almanac last year on May 2nd said: “Good Housekeeping magazine went on sale for the first time on this day in 1885, offering housekeeping tips, parenting advice, product reviews, and fiction. In 1900, the magazine developed the Good Housekeeping Experiment Station to test and evaluate consumer goods and foods for the benefit of the magazine's readers. Products that passed the magazine's standards were given the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," and anyone who wasn't satisfied by one of the approved and advertised products could obtain a full refund. In a time before any regulatory or consumer protection agencies, the Experiment Station performed an important public service, and its tests raised concerns about smoking, overeating, and preservatives before anyone else.”

Fiction in such magazines is a thing of the past

My mother subscribed to Good Housekeeping for years. Today, it’s not a magazine that has much appeal for me, but from when I was a young teen I usually read each issue that came into the house. Along with what my mother taught me, it was my source, and probably the reason for a lot of what I do today. I especially remember the Taylors. Emily Taylor talked about things around the house, like new products, appliances, and furnishings. As I recall, her husband wrote about how to fix things. There were good stories, recipes, decorating ideas.

Today I look to the many other printed and on-line testing reports to make and needed decisions about what products to buy, but I smile when I see a product has the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Probably the most loved grandmother photo of our time.

What did you call your grandmother? Grandma, Gramma, Granny, Mimi, Oma, Mima, Abuela,
Grand-mère, Obaasan, Nana, Nona, Bobe?  My granddaughters call me Grammy.

If you were from a very large family, you were often just one of the bunch of kids running around at any family gathering. Grandmothers didn’t usually show favorites on those occasions. But get her alone? Ah, that was different. You’d get a body hug as she held you close to her aproned side and touched your head or gently tugged on your ear.

Grandmother memories are, for many of us, some of the “comfort food” of our adult lives. We remember her and we try to pass on her love.

Grandmothers were usually great cooks – at least in our memories. You might still cherish that recipe for her meat loaf that she hand-wrote for you when you were first cooking on your own. You might even be wearing her wedding ring, or keep something treasured that she passed down to you. What she passed on to you might be the craft or pastime, perhaps knitting or baking, that you enjoy today.

Did your grandmother ever come out with something that just floored you? As you both got older, did she hand out a bit of necessary tough love? She had to keep you in line, and who better to do it than a “been there, done that” savvy gal.

Did you know that some of our more famous and most cherished American notables were raised, for a time or for almost their whole childhoods, by their grandmothers? Count among them Presidents Obama and Clinton, and Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, and Carol Burnett (Remember her tugging on her ear at the end of her show? That was a signal to her grandmother.)

There are many prominent women today who are not often thought of, first and foremost, as grandmothers. There are many more than you’d imagine, and included in their ranks are Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton among the prominent American families, and celebrities like Martha Stewart, Naomi Judd, Sally Field, and Sophia Loren. Let’s not forget Queen Elizabeth II and Barbara Bush who are mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. 

Telling her grandmother her tale of woe.

Here are several quick quotes by and about grandmothers:

A house needs a grandma in it. 
Louisa May Alcott 

A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend 
Author Unknown 

A grandmother pretends she doesn't know who you are on Halloween. 
Erma Bombeck 

There's no place like home except Grandma's. 
Author Unknown 

If I had known how wonderful it would be to have grandchildren, I'd have had them first. 
Lois Wyse 

Monday, May 2, 2016


Though Arbor Day was on April 29th, I chose to wait until today to give you this. Joyce Kilmer’s version of trees is one I’ve known by heart since I was very, very young. It’s almost become a cliché. Another I like is David Rosenthal’s Trees Need Not Walk the Earth. But this one by Philip Larkin speaks well of trees and new beginnings, it speaks to the Senior in me. May is a month for that. You can listen to it here and see a wonderful interpretation of the poem.

The last line's words, "begin afresh," are also apt for today. The two previous days here have brought us drenching rains, over five inches, and hail that ripped and shredded the new leaves, and completely drowned and dislodged many pot plants, including my basil and chives. May Day here was not a lovely day. But we will begin afresh.
The Trees     by Phillip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.