10 November 2010

The Old Tree In The Sun

 Belgian artists  responded to Impressionism by doing something rather different than their French neighbors, their brushwork more subdued, their effects more akin perhaps to photography.  It has been called Luminism, and it has its counterpart in America that goes by the same name.  One characteristic they share is the strength of their work compared to the blandness of their compatriots who tried to copy the French. 
It is the quality of the light that attracts me to these paintings by the Belgian Emile Claus (1849-1934).  In the 1880s, Claus bought a cottage  in Astene, near Ghent, where he lived for the rest of his life. He called it 'Villa Sunshine' in recognition the inspiration he took from the quality of  light there. 
The artist found something remarkable in the old tree, painting it repeatedly, even breaking the rule that he probably taught his own students: never put your subject directly at the center of the image.  Yet Claus persuades us as he makes light gather around the tree in The Artist's House at Astene, reflecting off the house, or as the tree  in The Tree In Autumn appears to draw the fading light of autumn into itself with its intense need.

1. Emile Claus - The Tree In The Sun, 1900, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
2. Emile Claus - The Artist's House At Astene, 1906, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
3. Emile Clause - Rayon de Soleil,  April 1899, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

11 October 2010

Eline Vere: A Novel Of The Hague

"Every human being is a sacrifice.' - Hendrik Ibsen

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus has often been compared to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878), as though great novels with female protagonists are so odd as to require a segregated genre.  More apt comparisons with Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), rescued from oblivion by feminist scholars or Maurice Guest (1908)  by Henry Handel Richardson another brilliant first novel of obsession that still languishes.  Both were written by women, which only highlights  Couperus's  ability to create fully realized female characters.  His understanding of the experience of emotional turmoil, often dismissed as neurasthenia in women, remains exemplary.
A capacious novel, Eline Vere is like Tolstoy's great novels in presenting a large cast of characters, each one fully developed with a place in the story that only makes Eline's tragedy the more poignant.  Frederique, also twenty-three, is able to reconcile her inner turmoil with her need to connect with others. While Eline, with a loving family, admiring friends, and numerous suitors, remains isolated within herself, unruly egotism  her only avenue of expression.   She rejects both Otto and St. Clare as alien, and mistakes Victor's similarities for genuine feeling.

In  the late 19th century northwestern Europe enjoyed a balance of prosperity and stability by comparison with  more volative neighbors France and Great Britiain.  Yet this equilibrium often felt like stasis to those who lived it.  What could be more suggestive then, than the novel's first chapter that introduces the cast of main characters as they prepare to present  tableaux vivant at a party?  This theatrical entertainment, gone like the parlor piano,  was once a popular excuse to get into costume and get up make believe scenes from history, mythology, or imitate famous paintings.  Significantly, Eline Vere is absent from the festivities.

Eline Vere's imaginative capabilities are alive to the darker dimensions of life, alienating her from her enviably comfortable existence. After an argument with her sister Betsey and beloved brother-in-law Henk with whom she lives, Eline find refuge with a former schoolmate, Jeanne, who lives with husband and children in more precarious circumstances. Eline and Freddie, by contrast, lead such circumscribed lives that, in their twenties they remain trapped in adolescence like insects in amber.  A paradox, still timely, is that creature comforts make freedom of action possible, but attenuated hunger and self-wasting are just as possible outcomes.
The novel feels much less dated than you might imagine.  Theories of hereditary influence have been drastically overhauled from those Couperus drew on, but we still recognize its formative influence on temperament.  In the relationship  between Eline and her cousin Vincent, Couperus prefigures Carl Jung's theory of personality.  When Vincent  suggests that one can easily live a life based on one's own free will, Eline responds with passion: "But being independent, doing eaxctly as you please...that takes more moral courage than most of us possess."
Eline's capabilities count for so little that the reader could easily miss them.  She is fluent in French and English,  her musicality, playing piano and singing,  brings great pleasure to those around her but ends in an obsession with a second rate opera singer.   Her avid interest in the  workings of the mind brings her no peace or resolution.   She breaks off her engagement to Otto van Erlsvooert, a kind, loving man because she cannot imagine the emotional equilibrium needed to sustain love. 
One of the great Dutch writers, Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was the youngest of  eleven children of  a councilor to the Netherlands High Courts.  When Louis was nine, the family was posted to the Dutch East Indies for six years. Back in The Hague, his first poem was published in 1883, and in January of 1887, Couperus's first novel Eline Verve began a year long serialization in the newspaper.  After it was published in book form to immediate acclaim, Couperus spent a year in Paris (1890), returning to marry his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth Baud, in September, 1891.
 Couperus's versatility is  impressive, ranging from psychological, mythological and historical novels to fairy-tales and journalism. An admirer of Hendrik Ibsen's plays, Couperus was ffundamentally pessimistic, his themes work themselves out fictionally on many levels, individual, cultural, political. The internal workings of individual temperament struggle wirh  mysterious and incomprehensible forces of fate.  In counterpoint, a strong
aesthetic sense asserts itself in the consoling power of beauty. 

The Couperus revival in English comes by way of Pushkin Press, U.K., which publishes Eline Vere along with Inevitable and Psyche.  In the United States, Archipelago Press of Brooklyn is the publisher of Eline Vere, translated impressively by Ina Rilke, also known for her translation of Sijie Dai's Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress.

1. Georg Hendrik Breitner - Meisij In A Red Kimono, private collection, Amsterdam.
2. Unindentified photographer - Street Scene. The Hague, c.1890s, .Adje van Daalen Collection, Netherlands.
3. Jan Toorop - Despair, 1890, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.
4. Unidentified photogrpaher - The Couperus Home at Mauritskade 43 The Hague, Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.
5. L. A.  Haye - The New Uitleg In The Hague, c.1890, Library Of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Visit the Louis Couperus website (in Dutch).

28 August 2010

All The Planets In Heaven, All The Stars In The Sky: Gaspara Stampa

"All the planets in heaven, all the stars,
gave my lord their graces at his conception;
all gave him their special gifts,
to make one perfect mortals man.
Saturn gave loftiness of understanding,
Jove the desire for noble deeds,
Mars more skill in war than any other,
Phoebus Apollo elegance and wit.
Venus gave him beauty and gentle ways,
Mercury eloquence; but the moon alone
made him too freezing cold for me.
Every one of those rare graces
makes me burn for his brilliant flame,
and one alone has turned him into ice."
- Gaspara Stampa, from Gaspara Stampa, translated from the Italian by Sally Purcell, Greville Press: 1984.

One of the great poets of the Italian Renaissance and, I think, the equal of Petrarch, Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554) was born in Padua and grew up in Venice, where the Stampa family home became a salon where Gaspara and her sister gave musical performances together. During her short life only a few poems were published; most circulated in manuscript form. It was Gaspara's sister who arranged for the publication of Rime, a collection more than 300 poems, after Gaspara died.
Giuliano d'Arrigo (1367-1446) created this fresco for the Sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence. It shows the night sky over Florence as it looked on 4 July 1442. Visit Museo Galilio here.

12 July 2010

Plum Island

Dear Readers - Originally, I intended this website to be a place to try out ideas that I might use in my freelance writing. I was surprised when the site began to attract attention - quite the opposite sequence of events that most of us who sell our work encounter. As some of you may have noticed, I am a relentless reviser/editor and  the Internet gives free rein to these tendencies. So, to mark this anniversary, I revisit the first post, Plum Island, a magical place from my childhood. And thanks to you who have shared your thoughts here. - JAL.

“Eastward, the ocean spreads inimitably. At a small distance from the shore, Plumb-island, a wild and fantastical sand-beach, reaching quite to Ipswich, ten or twelve miles, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snowdrift.” - Timothy Dwight
Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was a Congregationalist theologian and the President of Yale from 1795 until the year of his death. His most famous, however, accomplishment was literary; his Travels in New England and New York were published posthumously in four volumes and Dwight is credited as the first first to use the term Cape Cod.

I do not know of any country which is wild and so diverse within so small a compass. This little piece of land, small when you measure it in square miles, is unlike any other place; nor have I found anyone who has seen anything like it.” – Arthur Wesley Dow

"The sea was meant to be looked at from the shore as the mountains from the plain." - James Russell Lowell, c. 1850.
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a Harvard man,  both a graduate and then a professor, although his boss, Charles Eliot Norton, noted that the fine poet and critic showed little interest in teaching.  Lowell was interested in Spanish literature and happily accepted an appointment from U.S. Presiudent Rutherford b> Hayes as Minister (as ambassadors were then called) to the Court of Spain in 1877.

"The impression made by this landscape cannot be realized without the experience. It was a compound of wildness, gloom and solitude. I feel myself transported to the borders of Nubia." - Timothy Dwight, President of Yale and inveterate traveler of New England back roads, in 1802.

"Salt marshes set about with round-topped hills, barberry hedges along old shore walls that climb over the upland pastures, grassy spaces patterned with salvia and bayberry, wild apple trees in the thickets, wide fields of daisies and frost flowers, shore lines of goldenrod and scarlet lilies, dark marsh islands, far and near, reflected in the creek and salt pond, haystacks crowding into the horizon's perspective, a blue line of sea beyond the distant sand hills, such is the familiar (Ipswich) landscape, varied by season and sky and tide." - Arthur Wesley Dow, introduction to a book of poems that he illustrated, By Salt Marshes, written by Everett Stanley Hubbard, 1908.

Arthur Wesley Dow was a native of Ipswich, where  his summer art school (1891-1906) attracted dozens of students each year; many  undoubtedly found their way to Plum Island, a place of recreation  and inspiration. B. J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955) was one such student, a Swedish-born printer/painter who joined Dow for summers at the shore. Nordfeldt's woodcut The Long Wave (c.1903-1907) may seem an idealized image of morning on the island, but it conveys accurately the unceasing energy of the ocean, just as surely as the works Dow, Heade, and others convey the quiet, meandering atmosphere of the nearby marshes.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) an inlander from Pennsylvania visited Newburyport for the first time in 1862, thereupon becoming a marsh convert for life. Heade arrived just as salt water farming, as practiced by thrifty Yankees, was on the wane. Heade's paintings capture the passing, never to be forgotten, chartreuse of spartina grass in spring as it nods in time with the breeze as clouds scud overhead, casting their own waves of shadow. 
"In spring they lie one broad expanse of green,/ O'er which the light winds run with glimmering feet./Here, yellower stripes track out the creek unseen,/ There, darker growths o'er hidden ditches meet." - James Russell Lowell
In Indian-Summer Reverie, Lowell wrote pityingly “who sees in them but levels brown and bare” is “Vain to him the gift of sight/ Who cannot in their various incomes share.” New Englanders reserve the word creek for the meandering waters of the salt marshes; all other small bodies of moving water are brooks. Every April, just as the townspeople had to repair the highways, they had to set out beach grass, planted in rows three feet apart.

Agawam, as the Indians called the lowland marshes, formed the back-story of the daily Atlantic tides. For a child, Agawam issues a siren call to enter its hidden byways, yet it is rather safe as wild nature goes.

The aerial photograph of Plum Island (at top) looks north toward the mouth of the Merrimack River. Out of range of this picture just southeast is the Plum Island Airfield, one of the oldest in continuous operation in the United States, the location of the first experimental flights in the northeastern states in 1910. On the north side of the river is Salisbury Beach, one of many in Essex County.

Functionally, Plum Island is a barrier island on the Atlantic coast in northern Massachusetts; it stretches eleven miles south from Newburyport to the mouth of the Parker River, and is bounded on the west by a tidal estuary, Plum Island Sound.
Newburyport, where I lived for a few years as a child, was incorporated in 1634, Ipswich at about the same time. The northern part of Plum Island has been a popular vacation spot since the 19th century; one of the first summer hotels in the country opened there in 1807. Numerous small cottages with salt-scored clapboards sit in rows along the beach. In this summer place where the rules of decorum are relaxed, sand is casually tracked inside on the feet of children and adults alike and even the admonition to eat all vegetables before anything else can be waived here. In my photo, you can see a line of birds perched on the roof-peak, sentinels on the flyway. To their east is the long shore; to their west the dunes and bogs sloping to the inland marsh.

Residents and settlers found the shore offered an abundant harvest. The littoral, that now-you-see-it, now-you-don't area between high and low tides, is home to bogs where cvranberries root in the peat layer below the water, their deep red berries visible to  alert berry pickers. Hay grows in salt marshes,  harvested by the plucky in low-riding boats, called gundalows, made for towing the harvest to the nearest solid ground. (Notice how the haystack in the picture at right sits on stilts. These are staddles, used to elevate the hay for drying.)

Marsh-haying has a long history in the area, beginning at Plymouth Settlement. Hay fed the livestock and made a good roofing material, so collecting it was vital work for the community.  Even today, if you look carefully, you can still see traces on the ground of long-abandoned farm fields, visible at low tide. Around 1900, saltwater farming became a casualty of real estate speculation  but images of the muffin-shaped haystacks live on in the works of artists and early photographers.
Beach cottages sprouted on the north end of Plum Island, close to Newburyport. Even though it was only a couple of miles from home, I remember the excitement of packing up to go stay in this foreign place.   Contained there, the larger part of the island remains as nature remakes it, year by year, refuge for wildlife and a welcome rest stop for birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway. 

The island is named for the sturdy blue beach plum (Prunus maritima) that roots in the rills incised in the sand by the wind. Those who have tasted beach plum jam may have savored the sweetest plums in the world. Visitors still bear away jars of homemade beach plum jam in triumph.  While cranberry production has been largely commercialized, Cornell University is currently working with beach plum growers through its sustainable agriculture program.
Larger than the rills are guzzles, low spots on the beach where the sea flows into the marshes when the tide is high or during a storm. These shallow channels that cut through the sandbar are only visible at low tide.

Most of Plum Island's 4,600 acres remain undisturbed, preserved as the Parker National Wildlife Refuge. A resting place for sea and shore birds on the Great Atlantic Flyway that stretches from the Canadian Maritime to the eastern Caribbean, more than 270 species stop here and 25,000 ducks have been counted here at one time at the height of the migration season. What they make of human beach-goers, with their paraphernalia of chairs, umbrellas, and coolers, has yet to be revealed.

I have tried to convey through words, my own and those of others, and through images the magic of the natural world of Plum Island. It was there that  Rachel Carson fell in love with the sea. It was in its presence that she found her great purpose.

1. Daniel Reinhardt - aerial photograph of Plum Island, 2006.

2. Arthur Wesley Dow - Moonrise , c. 1895-1898, Terra Museum of Art.
3. B. J. O. Nordfeldt - The Long Wave, 19096, New York Public Library.4. Arthur Wesley Dow - In The Salt Marshes, woodcut, c.1895-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
5. Arthur Wesley Dow - The Dragon, cyanotope, c. 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

6. Martin Johnson Heade - Newbury Marshes At Sunset, 1862, Memorial Gallery of Art, Rochester, NY.
7. Early 20th century postcard of Plum Island Lighthouse. c. 1911.
8. Jane Librizzi - photograph of cottage on Plum Island, July, 1980.
9. Circa 1910 postcard - General Store Of Geo. S. Houghton & Bird's Eye View of Plum Island.

10. Early 20th century postcard - Staddles of Hay, Newburyport Marshes.
11. Early 20th century postcard - Ye Olden Times, Salisbury, Mass.

04 April 2010

A Little Girl In Spring By Lucien Pissarro

Around the time that artist Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944) and his wife, Esther, had their only child, a daughter they named Orovida, in 1893, a little girl appeared in several of Pissarro's works. Recently, Adventures In The Print Trade featured a print by Pissarro titled Little May - and there she is again.

Is May a mystery or is she simply a failure of research on my part? (I vote for choice number two.) In any case, these works form a charming tribute to wonder, of childhood, of spring.

1. Queen Of The Fishes-In The Field, 1894, color woodcut, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.
2. Crocuses, oil on canvas, private collection, UK.
3. The Fairy, 1894, oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

31 March 2010

Eveyln Hofer's Transcendent Moments

Evelyn Hofer was a great collaborative photographer. Whether she worked with writers like Mary McCarthy on The Stones of Venice or V. S. Pritchett on Dublin: A Portrait, or intuited the presences of people long gone, Hofer was something very different from the photographer-as-voyeur.

From her birth in Marburg, Germany (1922) to the end in Mexico City (2 November 2009), Hofer seemed at home everywhere. For four decades she covered the art beat for the Conde Nast publications Vanity Fair, Vogue, House & Garden, and The New Yorker.

Often pictured, architectural gems like the much-imitated Villa Medici in Rome, Victor Horta's Art Nouveau Hotel Solvay, and Jean Lurcat's Maison de Verre in central Paris become, for Hofer's lens, an entrance into a further dimension. Of course, photography notoriously flattens three dimensions into two but, in Hofer's works, we seem to gain a dimension.

Think of some musicians and repairers of instruments who find something in the wood that holds past vibrations, comparable to insects frozen in amber. Fanciful, or possibly not yet understood, the phenomenon is easier to see in a poet's gloves laid in blue tissue.

In 1989, Hofer retraced the steps of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1832 tour of Italy, a time when the young minister doubted his vocation and mulled the ideas that he would propose to his fellow New Englanders as Transcentalism.

Of course the images here, in color, are only part of Hofer's work. She chose to photograph people usually in black and white.
NOTE: On view at the New York Public Library until May 23: In Passing - Evelyn Hofer, Helen Levitt & Lilo Raymond.


1. Mountjoy Square - Dublin, 1967.
2. Villa Medici - Rome, 1982.
3. Jean Lurcat Interior At Maison de Verre - Paris, 1982.
4. Marianne Moore's Gloves, 1983.
5. Foyer At Hotel Solvay - Brussels, 1985.
6. The Hills of Italy from Emerson In Italy, 1989.