07 October 2013

Love Is Strange

"(A) group of nymphs have been surprised, while bathing in a secluded pond, by a lascivious satyr. Some of the nymphs have retreated into the shadows on the right; others, braver than their friends, are trying to dampen the satyr's ardor by pulling him into the cold water -- one of the satyr's hooves is already wet and he clearly wants to go no further."  - from the website of the Clark Art Institute, a description of Nymphs and Satyr by Adolphe William Bouguereau.
Sometimes I wonder who writes this stuff.  Any moderately attentive high school science student  knows that cold water is stimulating.  If you want to calm down, take a warm bath.

Adolphe William Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a French painter, labelled as Academic, meaning his pieties are currently out of favor.  Nymphs And Satyr (1873) benefits from his less often remarked love of "the world and its vanities."
Nymphs And Satyr was purchased by a wealthy New York businessman, Edward Stokes, who  hung the showstopper at center stage  in the Hoffman House Bar (which he also owned) from the late 1870s until the turn of the century.  Then the painting changed hands, landing in cold storage for four decades, far from the humid atmosphere of a 'gentleman's' club.  As happened to the members of that other Manhattan venue, the Sewer Club, frequented by architect Stanford White and his friends Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the mirth at the Hoffmann House gave rise to romantic competition and even murder.  Stanford White ended up dead but Edward Stokes was luckier, after shooting Jim Fisk he spent a mere four years in prison for his crime of passion.

Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine millions, had seen the Bouguereau at the Hoffmann Bar and when he saw it again four decades later in a storage crate, he bought it to hang in the dining room of his East 71st Street townhouse.  Francine Clark, Sterling's French wife, shared his taste for refined craftsmanship and richly painted surfaces.  (Robert S. Clark: "I don't care a damn about painters' dreams.  I want paint.")   How Francine Clark felt about eating her dinners in the shadow of an eight foot roundelay of rosy female flesh is what interests me, but I have found no clues.

Now consider a middle class home in northern New Jersey.  A large print of Amedeo Modigliani's Nude Sitting On A Divan appeared over the couch in the parental living room.  An art critic might describe the painting's incipient abstraction, placing it just so in the history of art, or admire its formal grace, seeing in it a token of the artist's admiration for the art of the  Quattrocento.  And those colors: the electric turquoise for the whites of the eyes, the deep red background that highlights the rosy glow of skin.  The parents were pleased with the effect of their acquisition, but not the family puritan, who protested loudly and incoherently.   Along with the outrage of beauty, injustice had entered a previously sheltered world.    Elaine Scarry devoted an entire book, On Beauty And Being Just  (1999), to the proposition that beauty opens us up to the idea of justice.  Little girls know differently.


1.Adolphe William Bouguereau – Nymphs And Satyr, 1873, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. (100 x 71 inches)
2. Amedeo Modigliani – Nude Sitting On A Divan, c.1918,  private collection.


christian said...

Thanks so much for this wonderfully written post!

Jane Librizzi said...

Thank you, Christian. A small piece, like this one, can only hint at the stereotypes we take comfort in or are afflicted by. I took heart from some experiments with infant care that I read about. Each infant was tended to by a randomly chosen adult for a period (?a quarter of an hour). Everything was there to assist, as well as the social scientists. The only thing the adult could not do was check the baby's gender. The babies were fine; the adults were nervous.

Timothy Cahill said...

Wonderful post, Jane. I have known the Bouguereau and its biography for several decades and never thought to wonder as explicitly as you about Francine. My guess is she sat with her back to the thing. Possibly apocryphal, but I was told once that Mr Clark amused himself at dinner parties watching the expressions of his guests in the presence of the nymphs. As regards Elaine Scarry's thesis, whoever said the Modigliani was beautiful? Not sure that quality is among the painting's many virtues or in its philosophy.

Hels said...

If I met the family puritan, I would say "Don't hate Modigliani. Whatever your problem is, it should not be the painting that disturbs you!!!"

Of course the parents were pleased with the effect of their acquisition; who would not be? So the incoherent protests by the puritan should have given the game away. Incoherent ranting usually takes the place of rational analysis.

Jane said...

To Tim and to Hels, thank you for your comments. I don't hate Modigliani's painting. For me, this picture exists in a gallery of timeless places, so to speak, from one of my favorite songs.

Tania said...

Fine post to read, Jane.

Jane said...

Tania, merci, and yours, also.