Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part III: O Little Town of Bethlehem

In this last Friday before Christmas, we here at The Jade Sphinx continue to look at some of our favorite Christmas carols.  Near the top of the list is O Little Town of Bethlehem, which has, we think, a particular sweetness and charm.  There are many, many excellent recordings, but by far our favorite is that of Burl Ives, which can be heard here:

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was an American Episcopal bishop, famous for his preaching and liberal views.  On Christmas Eve, 1865, he rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and is said to have viewed the town from the field where shepherds received the news of Christ’s birth from the angels.  Three years later, he wrote the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem; his organist, Lewis Redner (with whom he had collaborated when writing the carol Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight, wrote the music, which he said came to him in a dream with an angel strain.  It was first performed by the children of their Sunday school.

In England, Redner’s tune has been overtaken in popularity by a 1906 Ralph Vaughan Williams version of the folk tune The Ploughboy’s Dream, or Forest Green.  Other tunes by Henry Walford Davies and Joseph Barnby have attracted less interest.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part II: Twas Night Before Christmas (A Visit From St. Nicholas), by Clement C. Moore

Though certainly not a carol in the traditional sense, Clement C. Moore’s wonderful Twas Night Before Christmas (originally entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas) has often been set to music.  There are several delightful musical renditions of the poem, and perhaps our favorite here at the Jade Sphinx is that of Christmas Cowboy Deluxe, Gene Autry (1907-1998), recorded with Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002).  If you don’t believe us – listen and see:

(Before moving on to Mr. Moore and Mr. Claus, a quick word on Gene Autry.  The very best Christmas present one could get is the classic cowboy’s Christmas album.  Autry introduced Frosty the Snowman, as well as Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and his recordings of these numbers are definitive.  In addition, the other songs on the album – including Santa, Santa, Santa and the lovely and evocative Merry Christmas Waltz – are seldom-heard gems, and they have become a tradition in our household.  They should become a tradition in yours, as well.)

Clement Moore (1779-1863) lived with his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and their nine children in a large, comfortable Georgian manor house in what is now the Chelsea section of New York.  The estate, called Chelsea, rested on 96 acres of farmland, which hopefully illustrates that, if nothing else, Manhattan is constantly changing.

Early one Christmas Eve, in his carriage en route to Washington Market to buy a holiday turkey, he began composing a Christmas poem for his six-year-old daughter, Charity.  Back home in his study, he consulted Henry Irving’s History, and finished the poem in three hours.  That night, at supper, he read it aloud to his family – it was the first time Twas Night Before Christmas was heard by an audience.  It was an instant hit.  Charity brought it to her Sunday School class, and then friends had the poem published in the Troy, New York Sentinel the following Christmas in 1823.  Moore, a scholar and serious educator, was initially reluctant to admit authorship.

It was more than 40 years later that the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) created the modern Santa Claus when illustrating a republication of Moore’s poem.  As cartoonist for the influential illustrated Harper’s Weekly, for each Christmas issue he drew a Santa, which he claimed was a welcome relief from his usual round of political cartooning.  One wonders how he would feel now.

One of the many interesting things in Santa’s evolution is that Moore originally conceived of Santa as elf-sized.  This somehow got lost in the details, as Nast’s Santa was republished everywhere: calendars, cards, posters and wrapping paper.  Between Moore and Nast, the modern Santa Claus was born.

Here’s the original poem:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Father Christmas Letters, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know that we find the tales of hobbits, orcs, elves and trolls by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) to be fairly indigestible.  The popularity of Tolkien’s fantasy oeuvre is just something we have to acknowledge, if not understand.

However, we are delighted to report that the collection of letters he wrote to his children under the guise of Father Christmas is infinitely delightful.  Beginning at Christmas, 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was three years old, the author would write and illustrate letters to his children for the next 20 years (through the childhoods of Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.)  Sometimes the envelopes would have special North Pole stamps, or bear bits of snow or magic dust.  The meticulous pen-and-ink drawings would show Father Christmas with his pack in the arctic waste, or building a new home, or provide a peak into the storeroom of presents.

Over time, Tolkien would expand upon his Christmas universe – Father Christmas will acquire a new assistant, a great white North Polar Bear, the PB’s nephews would later join the narrative, and, of course, various skirmishes with goblins in their massive caves beneath the Pole.

These goblins seem to return every now and then; and the North Polar Bear in single combat takes down one hundred of them before the gnomes polish off the rest. The goblins spend the next several years building their forces for one final conflict.  When World War II breaks out, and so much of the world is occupied with the conflict, the goblins see this as their chance to mount another attack on the North Pole.

The Father Christmas Letters were first published in 1976, three years after Tolkien's death. There are several different editions, some omitting the earlier (and less interesting) letters, while other deluxe editions reproduce the letters in individual envelopes.  Depending on your pocketbook and interest in the illustrations, it is hard to go wrong with any of them.

I have been returning to this slim volume of beautifully illustrated letters every year since I first received my copy nearly two decades ago.  I respond to this simple book in ways I could never relate to the more ambitious hobbit books.  The world of Father Christmas is both more familiar and more accessible than his stories of Middle Earth; frankly, Father Christmas’ world in the North Pole is also infinitely more interesting than Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  Also, since these were written for his children without thought of publication, the many novelistic failings Tolkien was prone too are absent.  His inability to move narrative forward, or his extremely tiresome digressions and displays of needless erudition are not in evidence. 

What is amply on display is Tolkien’s seeming kindness, his delight in folklore and myth, his simple humanity, and his delight in the holiday season.  This book contains all of Tolkien’s charms and none of his drawbacks – if you must own only one of his books, this is the one.

One last note – what a delightful thing to do for one’s children.  Tolkien not only wrote these letters in the rather shaky hand of Father Christmas, but he also created the many charming pen-and-ink illustrations, as well.  They are surely not the casual work of a moment, but the loving and thoughtful creation of a father trying to please his children.  Perhaps the reason we connect to the Father Christmas Letters so is not because of the letters themselves, but for the warmth and love that went into their creation.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part I: Joy to the World

Joy to the World is a true oddity: it is one of the loveliest and most delightful carols, but it really has nothing to do with Christmas.  Read carefully:

Verse 1
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Verse 2
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Verse 3
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Verse 4
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

The beautiful lyric is by English Hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and is based on Psalm 98.  Watts first published it in 1719 in The Psalms of David: Imitated In the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.  But, clearly, the lyric refers to Christ’s return to earth, an event at the end of time, and not his birth here on Earth.  Joy to the World does not celebrate Christmas, but, rather, the end of days.  Joyful, surely, but sobering, as well.

Lowell Mason (1792-1872), an American, adapted and arranged the music to Watt’s lyrics in 1839, using an older melody that may have originated with Handel (1685-1759), as pieces of the music appear in the composer’s Messiah.  It is doubtful, however, that Handel composed the entire tune.

Watts is one of the more interesting figures connected with the Christmas holiday.  Author of more than 750 hymns, he was also a logician and theologian.  It would seem that versifying was uncontrollable for him – during prayers, he once said he was distracted by A little mouse for want of stairs/ran up a rope to say its prayers.  Punished for the infraction by his staunchly religious father, Watts said, O father, father, pity take/And I will no more verses make.  We’ve all known children like that.  We will look more closely at Watts in the weeks ahead.

There are many fabulous recordings of Joy to the World, which is one of the most popular carols in the English speaking world.  We at The Jade Sphinx particularly like the Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) recording, as well as the one by Percy Faith (1908-1976).  Our favorite, perhaps, is that of Nat King Cole (1919-1965); to our ear his voice is a vehicle for pure happiness.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holmes For the Holidays, Edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg and Carol-Lynn Waugh

Longtime Jade Sphinx readers know of our weakness for all things Christmas and all things Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle combined the two himself with his wonderful story of a Christmas goose and valuable gem, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.  So what could be better than various authors collaborating on a volume of Sherlock Holmes Christmas tales?

Well … I’m sure that was the idea, but sadly the execution is often wanting.  Holmes For the Holidays is yet one of many collections of stories continuing the career of Mr. Sherlock Holmes long after the death of Doyle.  As is often the case with such anthologies, some entries are markedly better than others.  This book contains stories by such celebrated authors as Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008), William L. DeAndrea (1952-1996), Loren D. Estleman (born 1952) and Jon L. Breen.  It is a pleasant enough time-waster, but one wishes that the ratio of good stories was a little higher than five out of 14.  In addition, the fact that two stories flirted with pedophilia, and an additional two included descendants of Ebenezer Scrooge, indicated to this reader that three editors meant none of them were actually reading the tales prior to publication.

The cream of the crop included “The Adventure of the Canine Ventriloquist” by Breen.  In it a long-winded professional writer (paid by the word) is the victim of a Christmas haunting.  Holmes and Watson are both shown to good effect, and Holmes’ disdain for the supernatural world well portrayed.

The late William L. DeAndrea’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Tree” is excellent, and easily the jewel of the collection.  In it, Holmes must determine why someone would steal a nobleman’s Christmas tree, only to return it.  Though the story felt more like a thriller – fairly reminiscent in tenor and tone to the author’s wonderful novel, The Lunatic Fringe – it still managed to distill a distinct Holmesian flavor.

Estleman, who in previous novels paired Holmes with Count Dracula, here has the Master Detective consult with a now-adult Tim Cratchit in “The Adventure of the Three Ghosts.”  Tim, now Lord Chislehurst, acquired Scrooge’s firm long ago, and saved it from the brink of financial ruin.  Now he too is visited by Christmas ghosts just as he is about to indulge in a little corporate downsizing.  (The more things change….)  It is all a little too pat, but, for all of that, quite amusing.

Gwen Moffat (born 1924) provides the most disturbing story in the collection with “The Adventure in the Border Country.”  Here, Holmes and Watson investigate a missing husband, only to find that some crimes are more terrible than others. 

Hoch – simply the most indefatigable short-story writer in the mystery field – delivers the delicious “The Christmas Client,” in which Prof. Moriarty is blackmailing Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) over some artistic pictures the Reverend made of underage children.  (The more things change….)   

Though certainly not everyone cup of holiday cheer, Holmes For the Holidays is a diverting read for undemanding mystery buffs during the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Many Memories, Little Thanks -- Hope: Entertainer of the Century, By Richard Zoglin

Here is something rare and wonderful: a celebrity biography that is not only balanced, nuanced and impeccably researched, but deeply human and moving.  Richard Zoglin (born 1948) has managed all of this in his indispensable Hope: The Entertainer of the Century, which is simply one of the very best books of 2014.

It should be noted that we here at The Jade Sphinx think Bob Hope was a wonderfully funny man.  I saw him live at Madison Square Garden in 1989, where he played with George Burns.  Though the show itself was quite bare-bones, it was a great joy to see them both, and Burns was in particularly good form.  Hope’s Road films, with frequent costar Bing Crosby, were the only comedy series that paired two comic actors of equal caliber; and also remarkable were the number of standards in the Great American Songbook introduced by Hope throughout his film career.

Though alternately forgotten or reviled today, Bob Hope was one of the great comedians of the 20th century and a legitimate hero, as well.  Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in England in 1903.  His family moved to Ohio in 1908, where they led a fairly hardscrabble existence.  Though things were difficult, Hope (and his many brothers) did remember this time with affectionate nostalgia.  However, despite the haze of Norman Rockwell reminiscence, it seems clear that Hope lived in a fairly rough environment, and was something of a rough kid himself.  Zoglin’s research uncovered some time spent in reform school (most probably for shoplifting), which Hope in later years either deflected with an offhand joke, or sought to expunge it from memory for good.

Hope loved attention and was a born entertainer.  He moved from street busking to the vaudeville circuit where he honed his craft as dancer, comedian and monologist.  Most important – he created the man known as “Bob Hope,” the brash, confident and urban wise guy.  Here was a comic who did not rely on baggy pants or ethnic tropes, but, rather, was the new All-American model; it is one of America’s greatest acts of assimilating while defining the national character.  Hope ascended quickly, conquering Broadway, early movie shorts, and radio before becoming a comedic leading man in films, a legitimate radio star and Broadway name.  The age of Hope had arrived.

In a book of deft touches, one of the many things that Zoglin conveys wonderfully is Hope’s seemingly inexhaustible well of energy.  His capacity for work would deplete a platoon of men.  Most comfortable onstage, where he could inhabit his created persona, Hope would move from film shoot to radio show to personal appearance or charity event in stride.  No wonder he lived to be 100.

The defining moment of Hope’s career was his stint entertaining the troops during World War II.  Not content with setting up camp shows and providing song-and-dance perilously near firing lines, Hope and his entourage went from hospital to hospital visiting the wounded, would scrupulously return messages home, and provide a much-needed morale boost.  Zoglin peppers his account with several hair-raising moments (Hope’s plane nearly crashed outside of Alaska), along with heart-felt reminiscences from the ground-forces comforted by Hope.

Following the war, Hope was a juggernaut – he made many of his finest films, his radio show was immensely popular, he would go on to host the Academy Awards more than any other celebrity, and the well of goodwill he created seemed nearly inexhaustible.  He would go on to conquer television, the only star of his generation to continue to work regularly in the medium (and to good ratings) well into the 1990s.

Sadly, things would crumble around him during the 1960s.  It was a decade that was not only a public catastrophe for the United States (from which we never recovered and are still reeling from the effects), but a personal one for Hope as well.  The social, cultural and political changes effectively ended the American Century, and the sneering dismissal of the left and the political disconnect of the right rendered Hope, the first great comic to deal in current events, rudderless.  He would continue to do what he always did – entertain the troops – but in a polarizing war; Hope became a tool of the right and an object of scorn to the left.  He never fully understood what happened.

It is part of the power of Zoglin’s book that Hope emerges from his life a tragic-hero.  Here is a man who achieved not only the absolute pinnacle of success in his profession, but was a beloved national treasure.  Then, suddenly, the public turned on him, leaving Hope bewildered, unsteady and resentful.  Despite the multiple millions Hope made during his career, it was adulation and applause that he needed most.  When it stopped, the protective shell that he created – the Bob Hope persona – became redundant.  The personal man, the interior Hope, was insufficiently developed; retirement wasn’t an option, and Hope overstayed his welcome, tarnishing his once-sterling reputation.  He deserved better.

Zoglin does not sugarcoat Hope’s many personal failings.  He was a chronic philanderer, often villainously cheap, occasionally high-handed and filled with a sense of entitlement.  But Zoglin also details the many, many acts of simple kindness, his generosity to family and friends, and his untiring civic service (there is not a charity event that Hope would not play).  In addition, Hope defined what it meant to be a celebrity and a comedian – inventing the standup monolog, harnessing the power of his fame for good causes, and his deep connection to his fans.  (The book includes a wonderful story of Hope and frequent costar Bing Crosby leaving a hotel with Hope carrying a pillowcase of his fan mail to answer; an incredulous Crosby said he threw his out.)

After spending four days in Hope’s company while devouring this book, I was reluctant to let him go.  While it is possible to quibble with Zoglin on some of his assessments (Zoglin dismisses Son of Paleface rather airily, while your correspondent thinks it one of the greatest comedies of the 1950s), it is impossible to disregard the achievement of this book.  Your correspondent confesses to actually crying at the end … and how many celebrity bios can produce that effect?

Hope: The Entertainer of the Century is required reading for anyone interested in American Pop Culture.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Landscape with a View of a Distant Village, by Thomas Gainsborough (late 1740s or early 1750s)

We continue our look at the truly stellar show at the Frick Collection here in New York featuring 10 masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery with a picture by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788).

Gainsborough was born in humble circumstances.  His father was a weaver in Suffolk, and not much is known about his mother.  However, he seemed to be one of a brood of creative children: his brother John (known as Scheming Jack) was a well-known designer of curiosities, while his brother Humphrey invented the method of condensing steam in a separate vessel. 

Thomas left home for London in 1740 to study art; his mentors included Hubert Gravelot, Francis Hayman and William Hogarth.  He married Margaret Burr in 1746, and they had two daughters. 

A move to Bath in 1759 was a great career boon, as there he became a fashionable society painter.  He was soon exhibiting in London, and, in 1759, he became a founding member of the Royal Academy.  Despite founder-status, he had a tempestuous relationship with the organization, and he would sometimes pull his work from upcoming exhibitions.

Thomas and family returned to London in 1774, where he painted the royal family.  He soon became enamored with landscape painting, and his later years were devoted to depictions of the English countryside.  (He is credited as one of the founders of the British landscape school.)  He grew to love painting landscapes more than portraits, and his landscapes are among his finest achievements. His career was cut short with a diagnosis of cancer, and he succumbed in 1788.

Gainsborough was a meticulous painter, but he painted with great speed and fluidity.  His palette was generally light, with brushstrokes that were precise without being fussy.

Your correspondent must confess that he considers Landscape with a View of a Distant Village on show at the Frick as among the weaker selections in the exhibition.  The composition is perhaps too polished and too … calculated, leaving nothing for the eye to linger upon.  Though it follows the strain of naturalism popular at the time, the eye is disturbed by the overwhelming symmetry of the piece, as if calculated more for commercial reproduction that personal contemplation.

More off-putting still is the placement of various elements, as if Gainsborough were running through a list of crowd-pleasers necessary for a picture.  Pastoral lovers?  Check.  Strategically placed cattle?  Check.  Dog?  Check.  Even the clouds and trees look more like stock figures hustled out for effect rather than a reflection of either mood or reality.

In person, this rather wide picture further disappoints because the eye roams without direction.  As demonstrated in our posts on Constable and Velasquez, artists gifted in composition keep the eye in constant movement.  There is nothing in the composition to pull the eye along, and the effect is rather-well painted elements that just lie there without dynamism.  It’s not a bad painting … it is merely uninteresting.

It is particularly disappointing when compared to the truly champion Constable hanging on the same wall.  There, Constable’s fecund imagination takes a similar theme, and creates a picture that is teeming with life.  Indeed, the composition suffered to some extent by sheer virtue of Constable’s ability to render the scene real.  Both painters were men of talent and genius, but Constable was a painter of vision. 

More from the Frick Collection tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, by Diego Velázquez (1618)

We continue to work our way through the fabulous exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with a fascinating picture by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).

Though certainly not my favorite picture in this exhibition, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs has perhaps caught the greatest public scrutiny, including an in-depth (and largely worthless) analysis from the Wall Street Journal.  It was the source of much lively discussion when we visited the exhibition, and such animation is well-warranted. 

Velázquez was about 18 or 19 years old when he painted it.  He was living in his native Seville, where he was born in 1599.  His family, Portuguese Jews, moved to Spain from their native Porto, Portugal.  Velázquez was raised devoutly Christian, and received a good education.  A facility for drawing got him a year-long apprenticeship under Francisco de Herrera when he was 12; the young artist then moved on to apprentice under Francisco Pacheco.  Though not a great master, Pacheco seemed to understand the stark chiaroscuro of painters like Caravaggio, and taught young Velázquez for five years.

Young Velázquez also learned more than painting under Pacheco – he would marry the master’s daughter, Juana Pacheco (1602-1660), who would bear him two daughters.  (Oddly enough, the oldest daughter, Francisca de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco [1619–1658], married a painter herself.) 

Velázquez painted many notable works during this period, including An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, along with several religious pictures of considerable emotional depth.  Significant was his dramatic sense of light – as if every subject was a tableau with each key player under an individual spotlight. 

Velázquez moved to Madrid, where he became court painter to Philip IV.  The gig was extremely high-paying, and offered considerable benefits (including room and board and medical coverage – which seems to be a consistent wish in any age).  He would remain there – aside from significant trips to Italy, for the rest of his life.

The picture currently on view at the Frick is a remarkable example of his early work.  At first glance, it would seem the most fascinating thing about the picture is that neither the old woman nor the young boy are looking directly at one-another.  The shared distracted gaze is what gives the picture something of its unique tension, and certainly much of its other-worldliness.

Like much of his work, both figures seem to emerge into (or out of) a well-placed spotlight, which leaves the surroundings in a dramatic shadowland.  The boy, in particular, almost looks as if he were visiting from another painting (if not another world).  It is a curiously old face for a boy so young – and he carries a glass beaker, which is an interesting implement for the cooking of some eggs.  In a picture of virtuosic grace-notes, this beaker is probably the most notable. Depicting glass in oil paint is a particularly difficult (and perilous!) undertaking, and Velázquez effortlessly paints a transparent beaker with both weight and depth.

Note, too, the hands of both figures, which are rendered with extreme sensitivity.  These are hands that are capable of actual work, and their versatility and dexterity is evident.  Wonderful, too, are the components that make up the design – the red peppers, the onion, ceramic pitchers and the knife draped wonderfully over a bowl to cast a shadow.  For an artist so young (or at any age) this is a splendid show of control over the medium and of his art.

His sense of composition is flawless; note how your gaze goes from the boy’s head, to his hand, to her hand holding the spoon, to her hand holding the egg, up to her face, and then back to the boy.  The strategic use of white – from collar to egg to egg to shawl – underscores the flow.  The eye is in constant motion, and the picture has no ‘dead’ space.

For your correspondent, though, it still remains a curiously … cold work.  It is certainly striking, but hardly beautiful.  It is a picture that is all intellect and no heart; the work of a young artist who has not yet learned that the most important thing to give is one’s self.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving at The Jade Sphinx

It is almost impossible to write about Thanksgiving this year, given recent events.  The ills that affect us as a nation and as a people seem particularly pernicious as this winter rolls around.  Predatory (indeed, homicidal) police roam both large cities and small country hamlets, our government spies on innocent Americans without restraint, and our politicians seem engaged only in political games-playing while the nation literally burns.  Our policies at home and abroad unravel around us while the criminally rich are getting much richer and the poor getting much poorer.  And the Average Man, that once-great American invention, seems to have a big target painted on his back.

Worse still, as a people we have lost many of the yardsticks that made us great.  Neighbors are balkanized into warring factions, divided by our differences rather than united in our community.  Cooperation, common curtesy, simple decency and respect for one-another have completely eroded into the ugly spectacle of everyday American life.  A ride in the New York City subway is enough to make even the most optimistic of us agree with Mark Twain when he wrote: There are times when one would like to hang the whole human race, and finish the farce.

And yet …

And yet … we here at The Jade Sphinx are happy.  We are not deluded that this is not a particularly dark period in our history, but we also know that is not the whole story.  With a little digging, one can find decency, humanity and compassion most everywhere. 

We see it in parents, couples, children, family and friends who truly love one another.  We see it in those few who work for the common good rather than personal gain.  And we see it in the eyes of people who care for us, in voices when lifted in song, and in the words and images of serious artists.

The anarchy that surrounds us is not the last word; it is often just background noise.  How many of us have particularly warm memories of periods when the world seemed most dire?  The horrors of man’s inhumanity to man are often sponged away by the bright furnace of warmth and humanity in their aftermath.  The good is not interred with our bones, rather, the poison of our evil is diluted and the good remains.

And, perhaps amazingly, we here are still optimistic.  Outside events shape our lives, but our internal outlook determines whether we are happy or not.  Life constantly amazes me, and the simple fact that I am alive takes me by surprise.  Life cannot sour me because I’m still living it – participating in the arts, laughing at jokes, enjoying books, eating delicious food, leering at beautiful people.  (We particularly like that last one.)  How can life be terrible when there is so much bounty to feed upon?  Despite the many negatives that life throws at us, we are grateful for our time, for being together, and for the miracle of life.

My goal during the past year of The Jade Sphinx has been to help, to some degree, to illustrate that miracle, and to help illustrate how that miracle works.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  You may be in the darkness, but you are not of it. 

And now … I think we can now safely think about Christmas.

Tomorrow: Back to the Frick Collection!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent (1892)

We continue our look at several pictures in the current exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with the picture in the show I loved most, Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw, painted in 1892 by your correspondent’s favorite painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Contemporary art historians and critics – largely a benighted lot – are troubled by Sargent and his achievement.  His talent is too prodigious to dismiss, but he does not comfortably fit with either within the Academic establishment or inside the Impressionist movement, both of which were dominant at that time.  What Sargent was, in short, was his own thing, an artist unique to himself who managed also to wonderfully illustrate his own time.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriate parents.  He would study in Florence and Paris, and live in London and Boston.  He was one of most celebrated artists of his time, famous for his “society portraits.”  Near the end of his life, he visited the battlefields in World War I France as an official British War artist.  His frescoes for the Boston Public Library occupied his later years; they are both magnificent and completely unlike his other work.

The painting visiting the Frick is a portrait of Lady Gertrude Agnew, the wife of Sir Andrew Agnew, 9th Baronet.  She was born in 1865, and was all of 27 when Sargent immortalized her.  There is some irony in the portrait hanging in the Frick: in 1922, when the family hit financial troubles, they tried to sell the work to Helen Clay Frick in 1922.  Foolish woman – she turned it down.  Lady Agnew herself would die in 1932, following a long illness.

This is, by any critical and aesthetic yardstick, a magnificent picture.  It is easily the most striking piece in the exhibition – and is strategically placed in the center wall facing the viewer upon entering.  (The magnificent Constable, covered in these pages last week, is lost instantly – such is the power of the Sargent.)

Among the many component parts of Sargent’s genius was a deep and abiding understanding of the color blue.  It is the dominant color in his work, and he uses it to great effect both alone and in combination and contrast to other colors.  His use of blue here is nothing short of splendid, morphing through different shadings, contrasts with white, gold and pale red, and setting the mood of elegant repose.  The notion of Sargent the colorist is essential to understanding his sense of composition and how he saw the world around him.

Typical of the time, there is an Asian influence, consistent with the then-current Aesthetic Movement of things Japanese and Chinese.  This underscores that Lady Agnew is not only a lady of taste and refinement, but up-to-date with current modes of aesthetic expression. 

Let us look also at some of the things perhaps not blatant at first glance:  note, for example, how Sargent suggests the flesh of her left arm under the gauzy material of her dress.  Look at how the pattern on the chair is beautifully rendered without being stuffy or academic; much is suggested, but all that is necessary is said.

The pose is quite special.  Notice how her body is twisted to face one way, while the chair is adjusted to face the other – both creating the tension of a V.  (The power of this pose is underscored by how Lady Agnew clutches the base of her chair.)  And in the center of that V, Lady Agnew looks straight out at the viewer with a gaze frank, strong and enigmatic.  Last week we were looking at the portrait of Allan Ramsay’s wife; both Ramsay and Sargent are able to write volumes with the expressions of their subjects.  Where Ramsay relates a placid and affectionate beauty, Sargent paints a woman elegant, commanding and hypnotic.  She is fully aware of her status in life, her own intellectual and artistic attainments, and her own power as a woman. 

Finally, Lady Agnew holds a blossom in her lap, the white of the petals offset by her lilac sash.  Though literally draped in beauty, Sargent paints a figure of power and presence – a formidable woman indeed, and a perfect centerpiece to this splendid show.

Tomorrow: A special Thanksgiving message!