The last full day of Madeline’s visit began as had the others, with sex and conversation. A tad earlier than I would have preferred, but that’s what I get for bedding a farm girl with a libido that answers to the cock’s crow.
I remind myself that I can sleep when I’m dead—or at least tomorrow, when Madeline is gone.
Before she goes home, I am determined that we spend a day out in the city, so that her memories will include sites other than the ceiling of my bedroom.
“Let’s go to a museum,” I suggest as we lay in bed, staring up. “And then read in the park.”
“That sounds really lovely.”
“Don’t it, though? Well, what do you think? The Met? The Guggenheim? MoMA?”
“That’s really your decision, isn’t it?”
Of course it was—it’s my city. I thought about the exhibitions I wanted to see, and the collections Madeline has yet to see.
I thought about the crowds. I thought about trudging through those vast galleries, past all those people and visual stimuli, checking off masterpiece after masterpiece, drugged as we were on sex and companionship.
What a buzz kill.
I didn’t want to ruin our intimacy by taking Madeline to a museum.
I wanted to build on it by taking her to a painting.
One single painting.
“Let’s go to the Frick,” I said. “Ever heard of it?”
She shook her head.
I smiled. “Good.”
Madeline was going to meet the Comtesse d’Haussonville.
We walked through the park to the Frick, toting a bag stuffed with a blanket, our books and bottles of water. It was a warm afternoon, and the park was filled with families, runners and sun worshippers.
This was about our speed, languid and taking life as it came.
That mellow idyll was tempered when we were face to face with the Frick’s grand doors.
Installed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, the collection is a jewel box of erudite connoisseurship, each artwork judiciously chosen and placed in juxtaposition to others.
The perfection of the place is meant to inspire awe, to make you feel underdressed for a fine occasion. Indeed, we were underdressed—not so long ago, visitors were required to conform to a dress code of slacks for gentlemen, skirts for ladies. To this day, children are not allowed, lest they disrupt the decorum.
I took secret delight in walking among such elegance in my shorts and sandals. I hoped that my desecration kept that bastard Henry Clay Frick rolling in his worm-eaten grave, and roiling in anger from his special place in hell.
See, before I met Mister Frick on the hallowed ground of his home—this carefully constructed monument to the privileges of wealth and taste—I met him in the writing of anarchist Emma Goldman, Frick’s sworn enemy and early molder of my young mind.
Her enmity was born in May 1892, when Frick—an anti-labor coke magnate—crushed the effort of steelworkers to unionize in Homestead, Pennsylvania. He ordered his men to shoot the workers, killing many and their families.
It was an outrage, turning public opinion on Frick, and galvanizing radicals.
Goldman’s beloved, Alexander Berkman, was moved to assassinate Frick in retribution; the attempt failed, and Berkman was jailed, further infuriating Goldman.
Even now, I regret the corrupt soul of Frick’s collection, purchased as it was with blood money mopped from the brutality of that riot.
Well, at least my inner unrepentant lefty sees it that way.
Faced with the collection’s quality and beauty, my inner esthete claps his gloved hands in absolute glee.
My inner radical and my inner aesthete—those two old queens are always finding something to argue about.
I followed Madeline’s path through the collection, knowing it would eventually lead to the Comtesse.
We passed slowly passed the Bouchers, the Holbein in the living hall.
She was stopped in her tracks by the sugary colors of Fragonard’s Progress of Love, a series of large paintings installed on the walls of a high-ceilinged sitting room.
We held hands as we moved around the space, following the progress as one lover seeks another, they meet and are adorned by laurels—only to be separated once more, resorting to letters to express their sentiments.
“So perfect, sweet and sad,” she said, holding my arm.
“Purty, ain’t it?” I kissed her hand. “C’mon.”
In a corridor, we found the Comtesse waiting.
I don’t know much about the Comtesse, but I know her well.
What I mean to say is, I know only the barest details about the woman portrayed, much of it self-evident in the painting. Take a look, and you can see that she was an elegant young woman, confident and assured as she gazes at the viewer.
I know her well in the sense that this is a masterpiece by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The artist was drawn to the subject, I gather, by her beauty but also by her independence of mind—she was a brilliant conversationalist and socialite who had produced books well regarded in mid-nineteenth century France.
Ingres might have posed the Comtesse in any number of ways, but he chose to depict the young intellectual in her boudoir, informally, as though she were preparing to go out to a function, or just returning from one.
Rather than present her as she presumably presented herself—as a sophisticate in the social arena—Ingres brought us into her intimate world, where she remains observant and alert.
Beautifully rendered, is also something of a psychological portrait of real woman, in a real space and time, whose presence continues to connect to modern viewers; more so, really, than do her own writings.
“Perfect, right?” I asked.
“Really, it’s incredible. She’s just . . . right there,” Madeline agreed.
“And yet when you look at it for a time, you recognize all the ways Ingres has manipulated reality to fit the composition,” I said. “I mean, if she were to turn and face you, her left arm would reach to her knees!”
I was drawn here, actually, by the experience of another artist looking at this same painting, in this same collection, over half a century ago.
Then a struggling young painter, Willem de Kooning stood here contemplating the use of line and form, the way Ingres composed a picture so that your eyes are drawn across its planes.
But I suppose he was also drawn to this as a portrait of a confident woman.
In time, de Kooning would be renowned for his own depictions of women.
Stylistically very different, right? Of course they are—a little over a century had passed between the creation of each painting, which is a whole lot of water over the dam of art history.
And yet, there are similarities.
De Kooning’s Woman is not a portrait so much as the representation of an archetype. She doesn’t represent an actual woman; she is derived from art history, pop culture, figure drawing and, okay, maybe a smidgen of the artist’s mother, wife and lovers.
But in moving to the archetypical, de Kooning steered to representing strength and power, assurance and fecundity.
This was on my mind, looking at Ingres that afternoon.
I am no match for such painters, but I can put myself in de Kooning’s shoes as he pondered the Comtesse and asked: how does one do this?
De Kooning was after breakthrough in modernism.
Me, I am just writing a blog.
Even so, I relate to the struggle of portraitists and figure painters. Because here, in this blog, I am turning real people into representations of real people. I do so in words, not paint, but in my mind at least, it is a related creative dilemma.
How much of Madeline, for example, do I need to observe and put into language, to give you a sense of who she is? To what degree is my portrait of Madeline consistent with the actual subject, and to what degree is this written Madeline a creation of my own imagination and abilities?
Madeline writes her own blog; how do I conjure her words and thoughts in a way that complements her own writing—when, in some respects, we are different authors working with some of the same characters?
For even as I write Madeline, Madeline writes Jefferson.
And here, in words, we become something other that what we are in flesh and blood.
Emma Goldman’s portrait of Frick is real, but not complete. The hagiographic bust of Frick outside his mansion is real, but not complete. The two depictions of the same man could not be more different.
Those depictions were created for ideological purposes, to decry or to praise the man who once lived in this mansion.
Madeline and I, writing each other and ourselves, for ourselves and for others, take a stab at the truth, to getting the facts right, knowing full well how subjective and flawed such an undertaking will ultimately be.
“Madeline, did you ever think . . .” I turned, but she was gone.
I found her in the next gallery, gazing at Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music.
Such a romantic, drawn to a scene of domestic courtship. I didn’t interrupt her.
Instead, I looked at Madeline looking at art.
I realized that if I were to commission her portrait from any artist I can name, my first choice would be the late Jack Kirby.
It’s all in the cheekbones, I thought.
Madeline walks the earth as evidence that Kirby was visionary. Someday, somewhere, someone would have a face like the ones he drew.
For a couple of hours, we trailed past the art, then sat in the garden to take in the air conditioning.
In time, we were ready for the park. I collected our books and blanket from coat check, and we stepped outside.
The sun was lowering towards the Central Park West skyline as we crossed into the park.
A few steps along a path, we were stopped by a familiar voice.
“Oh my dog,” Madeline said, her eyes widening.
“Fuck,” I said. “Emmylou Harris.”