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Yesterday I returned to the Musée d’Orsay.  The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War.  Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art:  this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).

Anywho.  I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture.  I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a…

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So, call it a midlife crisis:  I recently got out my old guitar, its case covered with political slogans and names of punk bands, and tried my hand at a couple songs by Georges Brassens and Nick Drake. The crooning is okay, but the strumming is halting and clumsy, after years of not playing.  It occurred to me (since part of my mind is, subconsciously or not, always thinking about food) that a musical score is a bit like a recipe: the G chord is like an onion, easy to play and always in the pantry, whereas the F7sus4 is like those hard-to-find ingredients (place the truffles and fiddlehead ferns in warmed pistachio oil – puhleese) that certain recipe books sadistically taunt the would-be cook to try and find. Andando, easy and flowing, is how we do the prep work, staccato is like frying, and largo is slow-roasting (the mutton tagine baked at 250 degrees for four hours). Implicit in the recipe is the notion that if we follow it we will have a final product, song or soup, the way its creator intended it to be; it will sound (or taste) delicious. Of course, reproducing it can take a lot of practice, just like my ongoing attempt to master puff pastry, but the fact of the matter is that we have a map, a recipe, a blueprint.

This is different with the visual arts. The painting or sculpture is, so to speak, already cooked and we are invited to dinner. This is especially evident in the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg (who is a School of the Art Institute graduate) or in Dutch still lifes, but it is in fact true of all paintings.  Go into a quiet gallery and listen.  They are whispering to you: eat me, mange-moi, take a bite, i∫ mich; all invitations to a meal. Come as you are.

The problem is that sometimes museum visitors aren’t hungry or they’re not listening closely enough to hear the invitation. How many times have I watched bedraggled, bleary-eyed visitors trudging past paintings as if following an invisible track laid down along the perimeter of the gallery?   The spectacle reminds me of a crazy public health scheme from some twenty years ago (a friend doing her Ph.D. in public health would regale us with stories of penile injuries caused by vacuum cleaners and dissertations on subjects like grass skirt burns in Papua New Guinea): old people would be fitted out with harnesses, the harnesses connected with cords, and the cords connected to tracks in the ceiling,  thereby eliminating all chance of  falling as they ambulated around the prescribed trails in their rooms.

Visitors! Cut those cords, approach that painting, and dig in! Eating a painting, digesting it, making it yours is vastly different from looking at it. Seeing a painting is automatic: it is in front of us and our eyes capture the image. This is similar to feeling pain when touching a hot iron or hearing an ambulance as it screams by. In Art as Experience, John Dewey describes the distinction between looking at the painting and eating it as recognizing it (yep, it’s a painting alright) and perceiving it (creating an sensorial experience with it). Recognition is passive, we see the painting; perception is active and makes certain demands on us (Dewey describes it as an out-going of energy in order to receive and says that we have to plunge into the experience).

So, how to plunge?  First, be selective. I’ve interviewed countless visitors who find museums overwhelming. They are of the mind that if they don’t take a look (recognition) at almost everything that they have, in some way, let down the museum. Balderdash! Instead, go into a room and look around. Perhaps one or two paintings will appeal to you. Perhaps none. Choose only one or two and focus on them. (Would you eat out with every, single person in a given subway car or bus? I think not!)

Second, take your time. In Daniel Pennac’s book School of Evil students find themselves with the following assignment one evening: go home, do nothing for twenty minutes, and share your experience with the class the following day. The students are dumbfounded. Nothing? Not even music? Pennac does this to give them the taste of solitude and of silence. I think it’s the same with a painting: I’ve never had a satisfying experience in front of a painting in less than five minutes and the experience I’m talking about is impossible if someone is jabbering next to you. So, accept the dinner invitation and than settle down, alone, in front of your host.

Third, be present.  Think about the all the flavors and textures of the food.  Great paintings have multiple layers of pleasure, so chew slowly and with intention, so as to enjoy fully.  This means following a narrative if there is one and looking at the colors and forms long enough so that you begin to see patterns that either balance the composition (or intentionally tilt it out of whack). Back up and look. Go closer and gaze. Imagine what you might tell the artist if he or she were to ask your opinion about the painting.

Fourth, acknowledge the effort of the cook. Some of the visitors I’ve interviewed have talked about their awareness of and gratitude for the artist’s gift. Indeed, the artist notices an aspect of beauty (or life) and translates it,  intensifies it, and gives us the opportunity to see it differently. Marcel Proust writes of the gift of painter Johannes Vermeer in Time Regained, the last of in the series In Rememberence of Things Past:

There is no reason inherent in the conditions of this life on earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms. Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer.

Finally, indulge yourself that extra glass of wine during the meal, let yourself loosen up and give in; be seduced by the painting!  Every now and then I have an experience that approaches meditation: my mind becomes clear and focused only on the image before me, yielding perhaps only a few moments of plenitude, but leaving me replenished spiritually.  Sometimes this happens when looking at the most mundane of details (gifts) in a painting, such as silver sugar bowl in Fantin-Latour’s Still life, Corner of a Table. French philosopher Simone Weil describes this experience in almost Star-Trekien terms: When we come upon beautiful things […] they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.

In the end, the experience you construct with a given painting is utterly unique, a creative act that takes place between you and the work of art.  Some days it might be just a good salad or a nice sandwich, but hang in there, don’t give up:  a four-course meal and a bottle of Bordeaux may be heading your way.


I would like to thank two friends who, when they read the first draft of this piece, told me it was unclear and unfocused.  I practically rewrote it to get at exactly what I meant.  It made me realize that for me eliminating lots of prose (as opposed to simply rewriting) feels like having a big litter of kittens and having to drown half of them in a river because you simply can’t take care of them.  I wonder if a lot of writers feel this way?


Yesterday I returned to the Musée d’Orsay.  The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War.  Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art:  this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).

Anywho.  I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture.  I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a photo.  Well.  He looked at me (down at me – I’m a mere five foot tall), his face of an equine sort, his bad teeth showing as his mouth dropped open, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my request, so I repeated myself, this time in English.  That’s when I got the snub of a lifetime (in a British accent, no less):  “I come to museums to look at paintings, not to take pictures.  What do you come here for?”  Well, the Goddess of Repartee was with me that day (normally good comebacks materialize a few days later while I’m knitting or sitting on the pot):  “I come to museums to take pictures, but I like to buy stuff too.”  He snorted at me, spun on his heels, and trotted off.

This brings me to a subject that I’ve been pondering all year while visiting museums:  to shoot or not to shoot.  Susan Sontag in her book On Photography discusses the role it plays in tourism and vacations:  people in today’s mundus imaginum (I did that just to sound impressive – it simply means world of images) have come to depend on photos to validate experience.  A young woman I interviewed from Berck-sur-Mer told me a joke the other day that I’m sure Sontag would have enjoyed:  a friend asks a friend how his trip was, to which he replies:  “I don’t know, I haven’t developed the pictures yet.”

Those who take pictures in museums often do it for just this reason:  to prove that they saw the painting (this is especially true when the person poses with the painting as they would with a friend or family member).  Taking a photo of the painting, “shooting” it (Sontag discusses the semantic reverberations of “to take” and “to shoot” in her book) means to capture it, to consume it; the photo serves as a talisman representing the visitor’s taste and his journey through the museum.

Taking pictures of paintings can also reduce one’s own experience with painting.  The camera is the thing looking at the painting, not the person.  The person focuses on mechanical issues:  framing, turning off the flash (if he follows the rules), and holding his hand still, so that the camera makes a good reproduction of what is right in front of him.  It is as if I were to take a friend to a restaurant, watch him eat a good meal, and then ask, How was it?

For to experience a painting is different from looking at its reproduction.  Walter Benjamin speaks of the real deal as having an aura:  just as radium emits radiation, a painting emanates the effort and presence of the painter which comes out of the painting to greet us as we stand before it.  Taking a picture of an image is a one-sided experience.  Looking at a painting without the mediation of the camera is a two-sided one; we enter into a dialogue with it.  In his book The Open Image French art critic and historian George Didi-Huberman speaks of images as if they were organic objects:  “Images embrace us:  they open up to us and close themselves to us in so far as they conjure up in us something that we could call an interior experience.”  If we open up to the image, without protection or the desire to possess it, the image will reciprocally open itself up to us.

I sound as if I agree with Mr. Horse Snob (Equi-Snobus), don’t I?   Well, that’s just it.  I did agree with him at the start of the year, but after spending time talking to people in museums about why they take pictures of paintings I have come to realize that there are some excellent reasons.  It’s easy to go to museums with preconceived notions about how people really don’t take the time to look at paintings (such notions flatter one’s own sense of cultural superiority); it’s much more interesting to talk to people and learn that museums are in fact filled with people for whom art resonates quietly (or loudly) in their lives and that taking a picture of a painting doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum experience is qualitatively any less for them than it is for someone who shuns the camera.

Here are some interesting examples I’ve encountered this year about how the camera aids people’s experience at museums:  Kamilah from California keeps a portfolio of paintings on her computer that have moved her and writes about her experiences,  a man I spoke to takes a picture of a painting only when he finds one that particularly speaks to him and doesn’t know the painter well; he takes a picture of the painting along with the identification plate so he can further research the artist and the painting later.  At the Louvre a few days ago a young Russian pianist living in Paris and I talked at length about Watteau’s painting Pierrot, dit autrefois Gilles. She was so thrilled to have discussed the painting with someone that she wanted me to take her picture with the painting as a visual memory of our encounter (besides, her red hair matched the wall behind the painting to a tee).  Finally, I’ve come up with my own use of photographed paintings in museums:  as desktop pictures.  I take just part of the painting (for instance, an up-close Courbet’s signature from L’Hallili du cerf or part of the allegorical painting The Funeral of Love by Antoine Caron where one of the cupids looks at the observer – he alone does this – as if to say can you believe this painting?!).  My favorite (and the one currently on my computer) is an up-close of Gilles, slightly off-center:  his face, quiet and almost blank, reveals a different emotion, whispers a different story, every time I turn on my machine.

I would like to thank Michel Colson, a museum man if there ever was one, for allowing me to use his wonderful drawing La foule et la Joconde at the beginning of this post.  Michel spends three or four days at the Louvre, drawing his observations, copying works, and talking to people.  We spent nearly two hours together as he led me through the museum, sharing with me his favorite paintings.

Referenced works:  On Photography by Susan Sontag and L’image ouverte by George Didi-Huberman (not yet translated, the quote in the post is my translation).  If you are interested in Watteau I highly recommend Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France by Julie Anne Plax.  Being a 19th century specialist, I knew que dalle (damn near nothing) about 18th century art and this book helped me to delight in the world of Watteau while in Paris.



Tomorrow I’m going to the Louvre, so please indulge me the cheap rhyme in the title of this post:  April is, after all, National Poetry Month and rest assured, nothing rhymes with “Louvre” in English (it’s now 2:42 a.m. and I’ve been lying in bed trying to think of something).

Today was the much anticipated day to see the Courbet paintings that I’ve been reading about over the past year.  The one that really packed a whollup was Courbet’s self-portrait Man with Leather Belt (pictured above).  This painting is much like the self-portraits of Rembrandt that whisper to you from a quiet space filled with inner light, materializing from darkness to be (quite suddenly) in front of you with tangible fullness and emotion, as if you were alone in a dark room, shining a flashlight onto them one at a time.

Much has been said about this self-portrait, the most interesting comment coming from Michael Fried who observed that the hands in Courbet’s self-portraits are often mirror images of the artist in the act of painting, holding his palette (see the belt) and the paintbrush (the left hand, which reminds me of the hand in Da Vinci’s St. Jean Baptist, but rather than pointing to heaven, the hand of the artist is solidly anchored in the here and now).

Michael Fried aside (gods of Art History, please spare me), what really struck me today was a detail smack in the center of the painting:  the white cuff of the artist’s sleeve.  I is almost as if Courbet literally pressed his sleeve against the wet paint on the canvas.  The rest of the painting has a smooth, academic surface, so this small textural gesture reaches out of the painting (much like Rembrandt’s figures out of the darkness) with the material tangibility of rough cotton or linen.  This little patch of painting breaks through the rest:  it is so physical that it made me want to itch my wrist (or touch the painting, and we know what would happen then in France:  the riot police would be in front of Orsay in five seconds flat).

Speaking of the CRS, the (which makes the Chicago Police look like a bunch of donut-eating sissies), I was a bit worried about interviewing people in French museums, which are more formal than their American counterparts.   For instance, no one (and I mean no one) sits on stairs or fills out school worksheets on the floor like in American museums.  I once observed guards telling visitors in a newly renovated sculpture court in the Louvre not to sit on the cool, inviting marble stairs (there are no benches) about once every ten seconds, thinking that if a smart curator were to observe this she would come to the conclusion that the was a policy problem, since so many people were, quite naturally, committing the same infraction.


In addition to a more formal decorum, there is a rule in French museums regarding who can and can’t “prendre la parole”.  “Prendre la parole” is a fancy way of saying “to speak”.  When I take students to the Musée d’Orsay  in the summer, even if it is a very small group, I have to procure a special badge giving me the right to speak within the public space of the museum.  This special badge indicates that I’m an expert, someone who can dish out the correct version of Art History (capital a, capital h).   This is all strangely wonderful in a country where one can bring one’s pooch to a two or three-star restaurant.

In any case, my fears were unfounded.  The only comment (friendly, in a critical, French sort of way) was from a guard who saw me scrawling in my notebook, Caliban-like, my pencil grip having been passed down to me from a great-great-great-great-great-Neanderthal aunt who never got along with the rest of my Homo-Sapien family.

More about who I interviewed later.  It is 4:19 a.m.  I hope I can get back to sleep.


My friend Karen and I have been entertaining ourselves lately by trading Carla Bruni ‘isms (they are even funnier when you say them with a fake French accent):  in one of them the beautiful, former top-model confesses that she doesn’t need make-up to look good.  Duh.  We like sing to each other too, in the thin Bruni voice: “I am a child, despite my forty years, despite my thirty lovers, a child” (lyrics from Bruni’s recent compact disk).

A few days ago my friend sent me a link to an article in the Huffington Post entitled Seven Lessons to be Learned From Carla Bruni. When I saw that Pfetten was serving up lessons to live by from France’s First Lady I decided I had a duty to respond publicly before women start throwing out their make-up and start purring like Pussy Galore.  So, here are von Pfetten’s lessons, each followed by my Midwestern common sense.

Lesson number 1:  Carla loves flats.

Moi:  Puhlesse.  Carla Bruni is 5’9″ and Nicolas Sarkozy is 5’5″.  Her “love of flats” is inversely proportional to the President of France’s love of heels.  Mind you that Sarkozy is not the first French leader to wear heels:  Louis XIV made them popular for both men and women; the “well-heeled” French (yes!  the expression comes from shoe heels) continued to wear them until the French Revolution when heels could give you away for upper crust and send your head rolling.  To conclude:  flats aren’t a choice for Carla.  They are a State Mandate.


Lesson number 2:  Her thanks but not thanks stance on make-up.

Moi:  Ladies, I don’t know about you, but when everything I try on in a department store looks ridiculous I head over to the make-up counter to find a new lipstick with a beguiling name like Sirocco (my new Chanel favorite) and leave feeling beautiful.  Carla might not need it, but I sure do.

Lesson number 3Her laissez-faire attitude of her love life.  The First Lady has famously declared that monogamy is “terribly boring”.

Moi:  OMG.  Does she really think that she is the first to have made this discovery?

Lesson number 4:  Ms. Bruni’s voice:  Verena can’t get enough of it.

Moi:  I sure as hell can and if you really want to get on my nerves you’ll pretend that you are a twelve-year-old girl trying to get daddy to buy you some candy too.  I have never understood the French predilection for women who sound like prepubescent girls (Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, etc.).  Give me my Janis Joplins and Aretha Franklins.

Lesson number 5:  She has her own career.

Moi:  Me too.  This “lesson” is so redundant I don’t even know what to say.

Lesson number 6:  For Carla “objects, clothes, and jewelry” give her “no pleasure”.

Moi:  How quaint.

Lesson number 7:  She makes “coy seem positively cutthroat”.

Moi:  Coyness, the affectation of appearing demure in a provocative way, is and always has been cutthroat:  it is used by calculating women to get what they want from men, all the while leaving their machismo intact.  I wish I could pull it off:  watching Carla Bruni on David Letterman with her hushed, little girl voice and her hand brushing back her hair at just the right moments, one gets the sense that she could have talked him into making her the primary beneficiary of his will with the promise of just one kiss.

There they are; my riposts to The Seven Lessons of Carla.  Mind you, I have nothing against France’s First Lady.  Au contraire, if she can have all those Chanel bags, Prada shoes and outifts from Dior without really caring about them, more power to her.  However, when it comes to looking for female role models, rich former super-models just don’t cut it for me.  So far the only book of lessons by a First Lady I have on my bookshelves is You Learn by Living:  Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life by Eleanor Roosevelt and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

A photo of the author, with plenty of make-up and bling:



This is me in the room where we read, where the kids do their homework, and where we put up the Christmas tree.  This is the room where I phoned my dad a year or so before he died:  we were both catheterized, me following an operation for postpartum incontinence and him because the cancer that eventually killed him had taken over his lower body.  We had a laugh about the improbability of us both having tubes coming out of our bladder at the same time, me at forty-two, him at seventy-three.  This is the room where we entertain guests, where we watch birds in the tree right outside the window, and where we listen to the radio.  It’s the most lived-in room in the house; facing south, it is the only room that floods with light during the day.  This is the room where only last week a man climbed through an unlocked window while we were sleeping and helped himself to my computer, an Xbox, games, and two Ipods, which makes me wonder if there are any creative thieves out there, ones who might have prefered my husband’s  old cameras, my cookbooks, or our truncated, travel-weary garden gnome.  No.  Technology.  Always technology.  How predictably boring.

This is me:  pint-sized, a pointy chin, thin lips, blue eyes, and a hair-mop made up of three different colors.  I’m wearing a sweater I knitted, my sloppy slippers lined with sheep’s wool, and black toenail polish (which makes me look a bit more hard ass than I am).  The artist (more about her later) painted two portraits of me.  In one I am featured more prominently, the room figures less.  I prefer the composition of this one:  I am in the center, I anchor the painting, but at the same time I’m a bit dwarfed by it all, the room isn’t mine as much as I am a part of it, which is the way a home, a real home, fits around its dwellers; it not only encases them but slowly penetrates them, imposing itself in between their fingers and toes, fusing the space between them and their things (I’m recalling how my daughter cried when she saw a decrepit, old bathroom cabinet we had replaced out in the alley; it was as if we had pulled out some of her teeth to give away to the shamanic junk collectors who make their rounds in the alleys of our neighborhood).  I also love the scale of the painting:  the leaves of the plant are bigger than my head, the dictionary takes up a big space on the rug – just the kind of metaphorical space it embodies in our house where we play Scrabble, Boggle, and are challenged by new words.  What is pralltriller?  Look it up! Finally, the wall is a tricolor reverie in the hands of the painter:  reflections of the chair, my sweater, and my eyes cast vibrant shadows onto the wall that is, in reality, a monotonous grey.

I picked this painting up today from Emily Rapport’s house.  Emily Rapport is a Chicago-based artist with hot pink hair and a shy, friendly smile. Emily has a distinctive style,  rooted in the gritty working class Chicago of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren.   Her colors and composition style remind me of Edward Hopper, though the series she did in the Chicago Northside bar Delilah’s harkens back to the sordid tenderness Lautrec painted with in the bars and cabarats of Montmartre.  I called Emily in February to commission this portrait.  I wanted to enter the painting process from the back screen door (certainly not through an unlocked window!), experience what others had felt under the gaze of an artist, and engage in a dialogue with a painter about their side of the experience; the working side of painting.

So, what was it like?  First of all, there is the strangeness, the awkwardness, of looking at the painter.  Unlike normal social exchanges where looking at someone means recognition and communication (of a sort), the painter looks at you but does not return your gaze.  The gaze is the detached gaze of the scientist, analyzing the face like a staph culture, deciding which details to focus on and which to pass over.  For the painter, the mouth is no more sacred than a slipper or the leg of a chair.  Indeed, spending too much time on a face out of a desire for photographic precision can lead the artist to over-paint, a problematic temptation Emily Rapport describes on her blog:  “Faces can always be difficult.  We tend to pay too much attention to the details in an effort to get the recognizable person ‘right’ and lose the impression of the whole face.”

Secondly, there is the unexpected physicality of painting.  I had envisioned the sitting as a hushed ceremony with the sable brushes gliding silently on the canvas.  Wrong.  Tools scrape, instruments rasp, and tubes squelch.  To paint is to work; the technical side is as much about a gardener raking soil and gravel as it is about the fine artist (an image inherited from the Romantics) dabbing the canvas with color in a transe-like state of genuis.   One wonders if Courbet, while painting The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), didn’t see himself in the men breaking stones into so many different sizes, combing the ground with dusty fingernails, and dropping their work into an iron pail, marked by countless mishaps and travails?


Indeed, the tactility of paint, the imprint of the artist, and the gesture of work involved in the process are all key elements that distinguish the photo of a person from the painted portrait.   Unlike a mechanical reproduction where the image is captured by light hitting a chemically treated surface or by a sensor that digitalizes light waves, the painted image is set down on the surface through the painting act of a person, an act that includes her movements, concentration, hope, frustration, and will.    That each brushstroke is a deliberate choice of the painter as opposed to a reflection of light or the arrangement of pixels; that these brushstrokes coalesce to give an image, is nothing short of a miracle; the everyday miracle of creation.*

Now, there is the problem of where to hang my portrait.  Certainly not in the reading room where it was painted:  settling into the very chair where I was painted with the portrait looming above would be a bit like the nightmarish funhouse scene in The Lady from Shanghai.  I suggested putting it in the room where we watch t.v., but my son was creeped out by the image of my unblinking stare forever looking out onto the spectacle (as if I don’t already given him and his sister enough shit for watching t.v.).  It might just end up in the narrow, dark red corridor leading into my bedroom, in between the framed posters of other women:  Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat and  Young Girl with a Flute, as well as the painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters (which aforementioned son, then only four, made me buy in the Louvre, so delighted was he by a painting in a museum where one woman tweeks another one’s nipple).

It might not end up in a veritable room for the time being, but at least I’ll be in good company.


*The word “miracle” has the caché of a Hallmark card today.   Writers concerned with aesthetics (among them Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just) have pointed to our post-modern discomfort with talking about or even using the word “beauty”; the word “miracle” has, in my mind, succumbed to the same problematic.  A writer can’t use the word “miracle” without conjuring up images of puppies (“the miracle of birth”).

And yet.  If one hasn’t stood in front of a painting long enough to be baffled (and entranced) by a brush stroke that can yield a likeness and at the same time something fuller than a likeness (because not mechanical), then one hasn’t spent enough time in front of a single painting.   The last time this happened to me was in front of Fantin Latour’s painting Still Life:  Corner of a Table while looking at the sugar bowl.

So, I do mean “miracle” when I say it; that is how I regard the fuller-than-a-likeness phenomenon that painting yields for those with the time and intention to look.


This is what we know about her: she lived in Egypt, probably in the Fayoum region, though she may have lived in Antinooupolis, Memphis, or Thebes. She spoke Egyptian and possibly Greek as a second language. She was alive in the second century of the Common Era. Apart from her beauty and apparent wealth (the earrings, the necklace), we know nothing else about her except that when she posed for this portrait she did so knowing that it would one day serve as her passport to the afterlife.

Fayoum portraits, named after the Fayoum region in Egypt, are the oldest known portraits. They are a curious hybrid: the portrait, which represents the individuality of the sitter, is anchored in the Greco-Roman tradition. This frontal, realistic portrait (as opposed to the profile view of older Egyptian portraits) was then bandaged onto the head of the mummy as its face, a bit like a Greco-Roman postage stamp on an Egyptian body being sent on its way. As both John Berger and Jean-Christophe Bailly have pointed out, the fact that these portraits were destined for the afterlife imparts to them a certain poignancy: they look at us and at the same time they face their own mortality. They look into the face of death head on.

Gazing at the young woman in our Fayoum portrait gives me an irrepressible urge to sit down with her, have a cup of tea, or maybe invite her for dinner. This drive some of us have to discover and reach out to the other makes me think of a neighbor who invites foreign university students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. At first it is a very solemn affair: they sit down with their different faces, languages, and customs to eat this strange, large bird on a platter. They are:  Yemenis, Bosnians, Italians, Indonesians; it changes every year. Gradually there is some pointing and gesticulating, then come the strange faces as the gamey taste of turkey is experienced, and eventually stories are told; there is laughter, there are smiles.

In much the same way that my neighbor brings together for an evening meal disparate parts of the world, painters through portraiture have invited the faces of the past to our table; their existence in our world defies the sitter’s own historicity; they are with us. In On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress Walter Benjamin describes this about the work of the historian:

At any given time, the living see themselves in the midday of history. They are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table.

And the painter?


I am indebted to Jean-Christophe Bailly’s incisive book on the Fayoum portraits: L’Apostrophe Muette (unfortunately not translated into English). The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Fayoum portraits; it is possible that there are some nice publications available there. I am planning on going there in May to see them.

Walter Benjamin is quoted from the work called The Arcade Project, posthumously published by the Harvard University Press. The book is divided into what Benjamin called convolutes and On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress is convolute N.


I’m sending you my dirty laundry writes Courbet to his parents in 1839. Courbet is only twenty years old, a student at Besançon, and looks like the self-assured young man in this self-portrait (not the larger-than-life painter who once bragged that he drank two bottles of Burgundy, three bottles of Bordeaux, one bottle of local wine, coffee laced with Cognac, followed by dessert, and then threw it all up Roman-style while staying at a friend’s estate in Saintonge). After giving his parents the heads up about the laundry Courbet says that one, he would like his parents to send him more cotton stockings (he doesn’t wear the woolen ones) and that two, he has blood in his stool, but contrary to the hemorrhoid diagnosis of his doctor, he believes he is simply suffering from a case of échauffement, or constipation. One of the reasons I like to read letters of the famous is for details just like these. Wow. Courbet had trouble pinching off a loaf now and then. Just like me.

It isn’t only to find out that they are just like us that I read letters. Reading the daily bric-a-brac of people’s lives; where Manet bought his shoes before his duel with Duranty, who met Courbet for dinner at the Café Andler, these small curios of information plunge me into their world in a way that a biography cannot do; I feel as if I know them when I finish reading their letters. When Manet complains in a letter to Zachary Astruc that he hasn’t heard from Baudelaire lately, Baudelaire sounds less like the unattainable poet-god on the pedestal where I keep him and more like a guy I might run into in a diner. (I recently found Charles Baudelaire on Facebook and asked him to be my friend; he hasn’t confirmed yet.) And what about the delicious innocence of Manet’s question to his friend Théodore Duret: “Who is this Monet whose name sounds like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?”

Another reason to read letters? You become your own historian. Letters, along with church records, public records, maps, and treatises (to name just a few) constitute the flotsam of primary sources that historians pick up from puddles, lakes, and oceans of conserved, sometimes intentionally (sometimes not) debris. With them a version of a story is patched together to enlighten (or, when used as propaganda, to persuade) an audience. Delving into letters means that you can create yourstory.

A good example of the slippery nature of building a story occurred when I recently read Manet’s letters. I’ve read several books about Manet and the one I like for sheer readability is Beth Archer Brombert’s Rebel in a Frock Coat. Brombert constructs a tight, solid narrative of Manet’s life and work: saucy stories of the Belle Epoque, penetrating, but not overly academic, analysis of his paintings, investigative ferreting into Manet’s family life, and, like a good tour leader with a bright orange stick waving in the air, Brombert deftly guides us through the labyrinth of 19th century politics; the Empires, Republics, Monarchies, and insurrections.


According to Brombert, Manet endured a loveless marriage with a Dutch woman named Suzanne Leenhoff. Manet, only twenty, got her pregnant while she was working as his music instructor and later married her out of honor (claiming, to save face, that his illegitimate son Léon was in fact Suzanne’s brother). Suzanne was beneath the Manets socially, rather homely, and fairly simple by all accounts. Berthe Morisot nicknamed her “la grosse Suzanne” – “fat Susan”. Brombert points out that Manet stayed married and led the kind of life the haute bougeoisie demanded of him; in the book there is no reference to love or tenderness between the two.

Enter primary sources! While reading Manet’s letters during the Franco-Prussian war (during which time Manet stayed in the capital as a volunteer and sent his family south for safety) one can’t help but notice that Manet wrote to Suzanne practically everyday and not just to say “Wassup, fat Susan”? Here are a few samples that were delivered by hot air balloons and pigeons from the besieged capital:

October 23, 1870: I spent a long time, my dear Suzanne, looking for your photograph – I eventually found the album in the table in the drawing room, so I can look at your comforting face from time to time. I woke up last night thinking I heard you calling me…

November 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, I embrace you lovingly and would give Alsace and Lorraine to be with you.

December 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, your portraits are hanging in every corner of the bedroom, so I see you first and last thing…

And so on and so on.

Brombert does mention the letters. She says that earlier biographies (citing one from 1947 by Adolphe Tabarant) used the letters to intimate “a vague picture of domestic bliss” and that “no attention has been paid to the probable dissatisfactions of both spouses.” Brombert read all the letters, but combined with other documentation and research, put together a new version of the Manet/Suzanne relationship, one based on her own reading of primary sources (a reading which is in all probability closer to reality than Tabarant’s “vague picture of domestic bliss”).

Reading other people’s letters is not for everyone. I’m still reading Courbet’s (632 pages and causing me a bit of tendonitis in my right arm from holding it upright in bed). My husband winces when he sees me reading them; he is appalled by my lack of discretion. He’s right in a way: pinching a letter from a postman’s cart is a criminal offense and reading someone else’s mail (such as when a friend of mine and I steamed upon an envelope addressed to her mother from her estranged father and then resealed it) is dishonest, disrespectful, and downright wrong. Yet, when someone famous dies letters become a free-for-all: the desk drawers are opened, spilled out, and we get to rummage through.

Luc Sante, writing about the recent publication of Susan Sontag’s journals (Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963) says that “the complicated, somewhat voyeuristic thrill the reader might derive from seemingly prying open the author’s desk drawer is […] to a certain extent, a fiction in which both parties are complicit”. Ah, another post-modern dilemma, and it may be true for modern writers: French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault famously burned and destroyed every shred of personal writing before he died. Sante’s statement implies that in the end we only read what the foresighted author wanted us to read. Will all published letters begin then to fall into the self-aware, post-modern complicity that Sante writes about?

As for me, give me the age of innocence and the “voyeuristic thrill” I have when I read about bloody stool, passion (or lack of it), and dirty laundry. In a letter dated August 23, 1865, Manet writes to his friend Zacharie Astruc: “I should be going with Champfleury and Stevens, but they keep putting it off. Anyway, they are bloody bores. Excuse the unseeming language, but since my letter is not for publication, I can say what I please.” Touché.

Manet by himself, edited by Juliette Bareau-Wilson

Letters of Gustave Courbet, edited by Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu

The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau : The discourse designed to make the other speak remains the speaker’s discourse and the mirror of his undertaking.” – “Le discours destiné à dire l’autre reste son discours et le miroir de son opération.”

Just like us, US magazine. Wow. Rachel McAdams (who dat?) rides a bike too. I guess the stars really are just like us.


I’ve been on sabbatical from teaching Middle School for six months now. I’ve done a lot of reading, quite a bit of writing, I’ve come up with a plan for my book and…my middle has expanded considerably. Teachers! You don’t realize how many calories you burn in a single day running down the hallway after little ones, taking Middle School girls to the nurse, or going to the special hiding place (every high school has one) to find so-and-so who is skipping class (or maybe necking as we called it in my days).

I’m sitting on my butt and yes, the middle is spreading. Yesterday, to console myself, I went to a mirror, took off my clothes and put myself in the position of Victorine Meurent in this painting of Manet. You know the argument: fuller figures were sexier back then! To my dismay, my gut was just as big, but my boobs were saggier and smaller, so even that didn’t make me feel better.

Following Obama’s adage that tough times call for tough measures I am going on a diet. You see, I’m going to France (the land of Carla Bruni, waxed legs, and petite women eating Brie) in only two months and I can’t bear (bare! ha!) the idea of going there with five extra kilos (kilos! I’m SO European!) around my midriff. To assuage my pain I’ve decided to detour my favorite foods from my mouth into my writing. Here goes:

Cauliflower au gratin: a simply, hearty dish. The low-calorie vegetable is first smothered in a rich Béchamel sauce and then covered in Gruyère cheese. It comes out of the oven golden and bubbling like a comestible puddle of lava. A crusty bread is recommended so that you can sop up the sauce.

Fish tagine with chermoula: fish, potatoes, and peppers layered and covered generously with chermoula, a mixture of garlic, parsley, cilantro, paprika, ground cumin, harissa, lemon juice, and olive oil. Chermoula is the Moroccan answer to pesto. This is all slow-baked (that is what the word tagine really means). When it comes out all the parts have miraculously fused into a taste too delicious to describe. I had this in a palace in Fez and mine is better. That is how good I am.

Profiteroles: OMG. Profiteroles bring together in one bite: crunchy, creamy, hot, cold, bitter, and sweet. It is mouth-ecstasy as only the French can do it. Into an airy puff of pastry insert high-quality vanilla ice-cream (no guar gum, please!) and cover with a hot dark chocolate sauce. I make these too, but my pastry succeeds only every other time, so you would have to come over on the right day. A photo of a young women with a profiterole in her mouth, chocolate and vanilla ice-cream dripping out of the corners, would surely be banned on Google in many countries.

Cheeses: unpasteurized so that they can walk up to your plate by themselves.

Roast chicken stuffed with rice and fresh figs: First of all, let’s talk about the perfect roast chicken. The skin has cooked so that when you bite into it it has a satisfying crackle. The breast meat is juicy with a hint of salt and barnyard fun: yes! the free-range bird’s flesh has an indelible taste of I’ve lived well and now give myself up to you. Into its cavern is stuffed a luxurious mix of cooked rice, onions sauteed in olive oil, and small, purple fresh figs. Don’t mix too much! It will become a purple haze. Restraint is of the essence.

Fresh figs brings me to my favorite piece of food porn writing by Walter Benjamin. In his essay simply called Food we can imagine what Julia Child would have written like if she had smoked a joint now and then. Enjoy:

No one who has never eaten a food to excess has ever really experienced it, or fully exposed himself to it. Unless you do this, you at best enjoy it, but never come to lust after it, or make the acquaintance of that diversion from the straight and narrow road of the appetite which leads to the primeval forest of greed. For in gluttony two things coincide: the boundelessness of desire and the uniformity of the food that sates it. Gourmandizing means above all else to devour one thing to the last crumb. There is no doubt that it enters more deeply into what you eat than mere enjoyment. For example, when you bite into mortadella as if it were bread, or bury your face in a melon as if it were a pillow, or gorge yourself on caviar out of crackling paper, or when confronted with the sight of a round Edam cheese, find that the existence of every other food simply vanishes from your mind. -How did I learn all this? It happened just before I had to make a very difficult decision. A letter had to be posted or torn up. I had carried it around in my pocket for two days, but had not given it a thought for some hours. I then took the noisy narrow-gauge railway up to Secondigliano through the sun-parched landscape. The village lay in still solemnity in the weekday peace and quiet. The only traces of the excitement of the previous Sunday were the poles on which Catherine wheels and rockets had been ignited. Now they stood there bare. Some of them still displayed a sign halfway up with the figure of a saint from Naples or an animal. Women sat in the open barns husking corn. I was walking along in a daze, when I noticed a cart with figs standing in the shade. It was sheer idleness that made me go up to them, sheer extravagance that I bought half a pound for a few soldi. The woman gave me a generous measure. But when the black, blue, bright green, violet, and brown fruit lay in the bowl of the scales, it turned out that she had no paper to wrap them in. The housewives of Secondigliano bring their baskets with them, and she was unprepared for globetrotters. For my part, I was ashamed to abandon the fruit. So I left her with figs stuffed in my trouser pockets and in my jacket, figs in both of my outstretched hands, and figs in my mouth. I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that it penetrated all my belongings, clung to my hands and impregnated the air through which I carried my burden. And then, after satiety and revulsion – the final bends in the path – had been surmounted, came the ultimate peak of taste. A vista over an unsuspected landscape of the palate spread out before my eyes – an insipid, undifferentiated, greenish flood of greed that could distinguish nothing but the stringy, fibrous waves of the flesh of the open fruit, the utter transformation of enjoyment into habit, of habit into vice. A hatred of those figs welled up inside me; I was desperate to finish with them, to liberate myself, to rid myself of all this overripe, bursting fruit. I ate to destroy it. Biting had rediscovered its most ancient purpose. When I pulled the last fig from the depths of my pocket, the letter was stuck to it. Its fate was sealed, ; it, too, had to succumb to the great purification. I took it and tore it into a thousand pieces.

Have you written any food porn? Feel like trying your hand at it? Send it my way.