STILL LIFE: Vanitas Stilleven
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. —Ecclesiastes 1:2
Lemon: Reposes—half-peeled with curling rind tumbling over the edge of sideboard.
R ömer: Presides—brimming with pretense and glittering wine.
Oysters: Lounge—on a silver charger, gritty shells a foil for glistening flesh.
Book: Slouches—splayed open, it invites us: Look close, see what is written here.
Pocket watch: Ticks—counting minutes that have passed, keeping secret how many remain.
Skull: [nothing]—gathers dust, looks careless.
Light: Reveals—through leaded window, a soon snuffed-out candle, halogen bulbs in a museum.
I studied Dutch Baroque painting in college. Everyone crowded around Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, so I chose the small vanitas paintings—rotting fruit and withering flowers, a kitchen table with dead partridges and a broken-necked hare, soap bubbles about to burst. Still life, we learned, was the least valued in the hierarchy of genres, condemned to this low rank by André Félibien, Louis XIV’s court historian. Women might paint still-lifes; merchants might purchase them. But it was history painting—biblical, mythical, allegorical in subject—that was thought then le grand genre. Despite Félibien’s stricture of the small scenes, I liked their intimacy and intense focus; it was alluring, engaging, the macabre so composed, so artfully arranged. Each little vanity was a linseed oil reminder of life’s opulence and transience. The consistency of the genre pleased me, the familiar players waiting for life to happen, and then, without warning or reason, to cease. As a college sophomore, I wrote my first sestina relying on the predictable repetition: lemon, römer, oyster, book, vanitas, and skull.
Examine the lemon: fruit is always popular but that curling peel is hard to execute, its vivid glimmer a still life painter’s calling card. In a day, the citrus fruit will shrivel, like lips pursed, drawn and bitter. The bright rind is beautiful to look at but it belies a segmented interior, hundreds of pale vesicles bursting with sour tang. The römer, a costly goblet much prized in the seventeenth century, sparkles with delicate ribbed feet and bulbous prunts, little knobs of glass ornamenting a hollow stem. Its upright stance implies wealth and fragility at once. The oysters suggest both sexual and gastronomical appetite and their imminent spoilage warns that such pleasures soon rot. The book is knowledge and presence—open, as if the reader has only just stepped away. We can often read the fragment of Ecclesiastes painted there: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. To the educated viewer, the skull, the obvious momento mori, seems an unnecessary overstatement. The pocket watch, painted with such fidelity, almost seems to tick—to measure the time we have spent looking.
No longer an art historian, I compose my own still life, as if I anticipate an engaged audience. Like the Dutch, I love objects pretty, precious, and ironic. I arrange and rearrange them like any painter of small spaces, seeking balance that appears both artful and accidental. Too composed perfection would be vain, self-satisfied; it would tempt fate. When Matt first saw my home, he listed my possessions in his journal: antique diptychs by folk artists, hand-carved bookends, matching matador and matadora lamps from the 1920s. He called the assemblage “overwhelming,” writing, “there was so much to look at.” Six months after that first date, we packed my things and he realized the inherent symbolism. Before we’d met, I had read an article on relationship feng shui. I’d stopped scouring thrift stores and antique shops for single, perfect objects and began collecting things in pairs, a practice which was supposed to invite a compatible partner into my own life. My parents doubted the practicality of art school, and so I toiled away five years in a museum basement, earning my own tuition and an arguably useless art history degree. At nineteen, I spent my days polishing and filing slides, tiny, translucent photos, like little jewels in their aluminum frames. The order pleased me—three hundred shallow drawers classified Country, Artist, Genre, Title—and I felt scholarly with my loupe, acid-free Q-Tips, and white archival cotton gloves. I kept a gift shop poster tacked above my desk, a star of our European collection. Willem Kalf was one of the greatest still life painters of the seventeenth century. His masterful Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar includes the lemon, the römer, and the pocket watch; it appeared in my college textbook as a prime example of the genre. When I was twelve, on school field trips, I liked this scene because it was familiar; my aunt collected blue and white porcelain and my mother had rugs that looked like the rumpled Persian carpet in the painting. Much later, once I knew the genre well, I would look at my glossy reproduction and wish only for the glistening oysters that so many artists would have included for their obvious symbolic value.
A favorite poet, Mark Doty, is also fascinated by vanitas stilleven and even wrote a book about the genre, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. He recently visited what I still think of as “my” museum and led a tour, stopping to discuss my favorite vanitas to point out the lustrous details we can see only up close, in the texture and movement of oil paint. I was pleased to have my choice so praised by his intelligent attention. For the first time, I understood what a Dutch merchant must have felt, showing off the still portrait of his life’s little objects and having it find favor.
I’ve long since abandoned my museum cubicle and its curling, unframed reproduction. Without a daily reminder, I misremember this painting with its römer, lemon, and pocket watch, its rich carpet and blue and white jar. I imagine the ubiquitous oysters that were never painted there. When I return to the galleries to visit this sumptuous reminder of vanitas, I can see just where they should be. On Kalf ’s ornate salver, there is an empty gleam of silver, just left of the lemon. No maid would serve only wine and a lemon; the oysters must have already been devoured. Looking close at the platter, I can see a trace of their oily residue.
Perhaps Kalf knew the emptiness would be more effective; we look for what is missing and I am wistful at the loss of oysters I neither saw nor tasted.
Each evening, I pick up the house, moving every object back into its place, stacking my bedside books and magazines by size and color, rotating the pictures on the walls according to the seasons and my mood. Ever a museum lackey, I am obsessed with objects and with order that appears casual, uncontrived. I have stopped seeking pairs. Now I sift through our duplicates and pack boxes for the Salvation Army. After three years, Matt and I have passed that tentative phase where we each kept our own copies of favorite books, movies, and separate subscriptions to Harper’s, The Believer. We gave away the extra set of Revere Ware, kept his stereo, my TV, but we made one last twin acquisition. Now a pair of greyhounds, retired athletes, form a sleeping still life on our living room floor. Moving only from time to time, they are typically motionless, facing one another, paws entwined. They have the constant affection and steady temperament we cannot not offer one another and they complete our still life. When I wake up in the night, I check to be sure they are still breathing.
For the Dutch, the Baroque was a time of financial and cultural prosperity so great they felt pressed to document this Golden Age, to remember it and remind themselves it couldn’t last. Beautiful and bitter lemon, luxurious oyster, costly glass—pleasures that at best are fleeting. Late at night, I look at the balance of the still life I’ve created—Matt in his study and I in mine, the symmetry of sleeping hounds, pretty objects, loved books. And yet, it feels like tempting fate to be so content, even for a little while. There is danger in such pleasure, and I seek my momento mori, my missing oysters, some small worry to turn over in my mind, to remind me that this precious order may be gone in the morning.
LANDSCAPE: Sky Above Clouds, IV
[B]elow was a most beautiful solid white. It looked so secure that I thought I could walk right out on it to the horizon if the door opened. —Georgia O’Keeffe
The first drawing Georgia O’Keeffe remembered from her girlhood was sketched on a brown paper grocery sack. She labored over the singular figure of a man bending down to pick a tool up off the ground, but something about his stance seemed unnatural. She rotated the drawing so he lay on his back, legs extended into the air. She remarked later that she felt relieved; turned upside down, it looked quite right. Every O’Keeffe offers a lesson in perception.
My favorite O’Keeffe is eight feet high and stretches twenty-four feet above a stairway at her first school, the Art Institute of Chicago. When I look at it, I see uniform ice floes floating on a crisp blue field of Arctic water. In the distance, the water runs clear, no longer cluttered with small bergs. An even line divides sea and sunrise. The world looks as flat as a canvas, and it seems that the still water might pour over the straight lip of horizon without a ripple.
Every day at work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I walked by O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed—four blossoms exploding across a six-foot panel. It was one of the most popular paintings in our collection and adorned coffee mugs, postcards, tote bags, and mouse pads. Despite its popularity, Jimson Weed is more beautiful than moving; in five years of lunch-hour gallery strolls, I never paused to study it. I know that all her life, O’Keeffe wanted to paint a mural; to me, those colossal blooms seemed mural enough for any artist. But she was not content with the magnified flowers for which she is famous. She wanted true vastness. Her wish was finally realized in the painting before me, Sky Above Clouds, IV.
In 1965, at the age of seventy-eight, she summoned a strong sheepherder, Frank, to her New Mexico ranch to help pull one hundred and ninety-two square feet of coarse canvas over three giant stretchers she had bolted together. When the wetted canvas shrunk in the night and broke the wooden frames to pieces, she was undaunted. She sent Frank to town for steel supports. At the Art Institute—in 1983, the only museum with the space to accept O’Keeffe’s bequest—the painting’s horizon pulls across the entire wall, and I can see how her largest canvas must have looked stretched across the back of her garage. She wrote, “It was a long trip with the brush across that 24 feet of canvas—once with water, twice with glue and twice with white paint to prepare it. And then I had to paint the picture.” Even so, once she began painting, she remarked that she could walk a quarter of a mile away and still find pleasure in the view.
Sky Above Clouds, IV is the only O’Keeffe I have ever really loved. In a proper gallery, you stroll and pause half a step; one painting to the next becomes a slideshow and it’s as if you click through digital images until there is a file worth stopping for, stepping back, even reading the didactic label. But you come across this painting while in motion, purposeful, walking between galleries and not even looking for art. The monumental canvas is hung over a landing, between two flights of marble stairs. You have to halt the rush of docent-led groups to really look and even then you always catch it ascending or descending. With O’Keeffe landscapes, everything is so close; your eyes run into the horizon line before you have a moment to realize there is no middle ground, no distance between the viewer and the depth of vast, flat scape. At the top of the stairs, your level gaze collides with a horizon that is both close and miles away at once. It seems that you too could step forward into space, plant your feet on the plane of the painting, and touch the cold, hard ice.
But halfway up or down the stairs, the accompanying wall text lists the work’s title, dimensions, and date. See, you would be wrong to trust me—though I’ve grown familiar with its provenance, I am still fooled every time, seeing an arctic, instead of an aerial view. My perception is both everything and nothing; this is really neither sea nor landscape. My imagined ice floes are clouds, layering calm skies and waiting still and silent for a silver Boeing and an apprehensive American painter to pass overhead.
O’Keeffe harbored an intense fear of flight, but at sixty-six, nearly twenty years after her husband, the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, died, she embarked on a world tour—her new perspective, an aerial view, reconciled her to the tension of take-off. I am also afraid to fly and it helps me to imagine her anxious tranquility—once aloft she managed to “forget the hazards,” distract herself with tiny, cocktail-napkin sketches from above. Since I first flew at fifteen, I have been sure that every journey would end in death. Even so, with every flight, I am again delighted and amazed at the view; flying above the clouds, even an untimely death seems picturesque and fated.
In my mind, O’Keeffe swallows a single Quaalude and presses her forehead to the cool triple plate glass, musing over grade school memories of cumulus, stratus, and cirrus. She thinks of Alfred, how she drove, telegram in hand, to the airport in Albuquerque. So distraught by news of his heart attack, she forgot her aviatophobia for once. She arrived at the New York hospital in time to watch him die. She still wore a dirt-streaked dress, the red dust of her Ghost Ranch garden still on her shoes. On the plane, she is pensive; she recalls the debris from the recent collision of a Constellation and a Douglas DC-8 over a street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It was the worst disaster in the nascent history of commercial American air travel, and its fatal record—134 dead—remained unbroken for another twenty-five years.
The Super Constellation had a serpentine silhouette in the sky and was said to be the most graceful plane ever built. The off-course DC-8 razored through the Connie’s gleaming fuselage and the lissome jet burst into flames and turned over in the sky, a beautiful and terrible dive into an abandoned airfield on Staten Island. The DC-8 skimmed the roof of St. Augustine’s Academy and tore through a row of brownstones on Sterling Place. People referred to the tragic irony of the day: one blazing wing demolished the Pillar of Fire Church; the dismembered cabin and its passengers came to rest in McFaddin’s Funeral Home on the corner of Seventh Avenue. None of those on board either plane survived, and six Park Slope residents were killed as well. Two were selling Christmas trees on the street. The city block burned for days.
This chaos, closeness, noise—this was why she’d left Stieglitz and New York for her beloved “faraway”—the wide, open space of New Mexico.
One boy did survive the crash, if only for the night. Stephen Baltz, age eleven, was thrown from the DC-8 and neighbors ran out of fiery apartments to roll his burning body in a snow bank by the curb. Four dimes and five nickels—you can still see a memorial to his blackened pocket change at the Park Slope Methodist Hospital.
O’Keeffe would have heard about how Stephen Baltz lay dying, recounting those last peaceful moments before his jet sliced open the Constellation. “I remember looking out the plane window at the snow below covering the city,” he said. “It looked like a picture out of a fairy book.”
Fear, calm, and wonder seem to cover and expose one another in layers of perception and paint so thin they are indistinguishable. Stephen with his fairy book and flames; I with twin visions of calm, stark ice floes in a museum and the panic and peace of an aerial view; O’Keeffe, seventy-eight years old and soon to lose her eyesight, tired of fame, her world tour, flowers, bones, and the dull rush of methaqualone in her bloodstream, preserving her present, and my future, in a painting of sky above clouds.
PORTRAIT: Girl in Kitchen
She is perhaps the least valuable artwork we’ve acquired. As a seventeen-year-old intern, I bought my first painting, Loie’s Tresse, after no one bid on it at an art museum fundraiser. I paid $50, which seemed exorbitant, but ten years later nothing in the artist’s gallery sells for less than $1000. We have etchings and woodblock prints from old art school classmates, and I wonder which of them will give up and wait tables, resigned to coffee shop exhibitions and local art fairs. A well-known illustrator, Penelope Dullaghan, and I served on a community arts board together. She’d painted the cover art for Matt’s first chapbook, and I was lucky to get a good deal on one of her small paintings just in time for last year’s Christmas gift.
But our Girl is amateur work—unframed, brackets attached with duct tape—she cost me $5 at a church rummage sale on Kessler Boulevard. An artist parishioner bequeathed a lifetime of portraits, and at the sale I saw some two dozen leaned on a tree trunk, one against another. The church ladies didn’t think much of them—those with frames were $10, those without were even less. All were unsigned and the cashier with his tackle box of cash could tell me little. The artist’s last name was Bird; she had been an Indianapolis art teacher for forty years. I could see the portraits didn’t have real artistic merit, but they were respectable likenesses with a 1940s quality that would command $50, maybe $70 in one of my grandmother’s antique booths. I bought them all. I kept a still life of flowers in a blue jar for a dark corner of our hallway (it covers the metal door to our circuit breaker box). I also kept two portraits. One is large and unfinished, a beautiful older woman. Her face is complete but her torso and hair are an almost modern, pointillist creation of colored dots that have yet to be smoothed into blue blouse and blonde coif. It wouldn’t have sold for much anyway.
The other is a girl—my age, maybe a little older—clearly not favored enough to have been granted a frame, much less a real canvas or stretcher. Her image merited only thin cloth glued over a small piece of cardboard—the kind you buy for $5.99 at Hobby Lobby. Even the brush was cheap or old; its bristles are stuck in the paint and make her tanned features look dirty. Her face is unsmiling, at rest; she wears an ugly yellow shirt and, over it, a square-necked red and beige striped smock. Her head emerges from an oddly sloping neck, and the yellow shirt can’t seem to decide where the shoulders end and the neck begins. The ear we can see is very large and fleshy, like the ear of an old man pasted onto the side of a young woman’s head. Both the portrait and its subject are unattractive, but there is inarguably something arresting about her. My aunt Sammye tried to talk me out of the painting, wanting it for her library; she likes unattractive and interesting portraits. Matt told me how unpleasant she looked—he didn’t want her in our home. I agreed she was very ugly; still, I was reluctant to give her up. Usually pliant, I was resolved to keep my Girl—to the slight disgust of Sammye and Matt. “I’ll hang her in the kitchen,” I said. “You won’t ever see her.”
In our successive houses, the kitchen has been my sole domain, and my only company for three years has been my Girl with Sour Face, my Girl in Striped Smock—I contemplate a proper name but can never decide if I like her (Suzanne, Phoebe, Hannah) or not (Gertrude, Clothilde, Janey). The strange bulge of her shoulders into neck bothers me every day, and I hate the way her dark brown hair escapes from its giant chignon; tendrils like thick spider legs crawl down her forehead, cling to her cheeks and neck. In spite of her ugliness, she has become over time Matt’s favorite. Houseguests puzzle over our Girl, paying her more attention than any of the beautifully composed works that grace our walls. She’s barely finished. Her brows are weak, defined by two faint black strokes; there’s a green tinge to her skin where the artist couldn’t seem to decide to reduce her pudgy chin and a line along one cheek where she was almost turned to another angle, her round face made thinner. But something about her expression is engaging if not appealing. Sometimes she’s simply unsmiling, uninterested in sitting as a subject for her teacher—a mere practice work for class instruction, I think. But more often she is distinctly dissatisfied. Her lip curls and her brown, heavy-lidded eyes gaze out with disdain. I’m never sure if her orangey lipstick could be just poorly rendered, or if it might indicate the faintest smile (or barely hidden smirk) at the corners of her mouth.
I feel like she judges me, thinks I spend too much time poring over recipes and scrubbing my stainless-steel sink. I am too often happily concerned with domestic affairs and she disapproves of the littleness of my life—thinks I’ll give up art and writing to have babies and sew curtains. Like me, she is thoroughly contrary, and when I am puttering about, exploring the settings on my new Cuisinart, she looks on with disgust. When I bang pots and pans and furiously massacre vegetables because Matt has eaten the Roquefort cheese ($15.99 a pound!) as a snack and now the salad with its sweet pears has no salty counterpart, it is then that she seems to be biting the corners of her mouth, trying not to smile. But she is blameless and I am self-critical.
I’ve grown used to my Girl’s companionship, and now the person who sat still for so long seems almost real to me. When I think about the subject, I always picture an amateur artist, paired with the mysterious Bird in a YWCA intermediate painting course, or perhaps her student taking part in a class demonstration. Surely the portrait was a class project—in my mind no woman would wear such an ugly smock for a proper portrait. The Indianapolis art community is not so very large—I sometimes look for the Girl at gallery openings or the grocery store.
I look for the artist Bird as well—I think I would recognize her. A Miss Bird, perhaps sixty, was my sixth grade art teacher and she was the first to let us paint with oils (our previous teachers restricted us to crayons, pastels, watercolor pencils: all easier to clean up). I didn’t think of Miss Bird until I had already sold off the majority of what might have been her work, but she was the first ever to show me an art slide—Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. I remember every detail she uttered about line, perspective, foreground, tone. She arranged a series of monthly field trips to the city art museum and I memorized symbols—a little spaniel was fidelity, imperial dragons had five toes instead of four. I wrote long stories—always mysteries—about strange portraits and wild landscapes. On Saturdays, I would drag my parents to the same galleries and mimic my idolized docents. My liberal, working mother tried to explain that docents were twin-setted and pearl-adorned doctor’s wives—she wanted her honors student to teach, to practice law or medicine, not to keep house and volunteer. Miss Bird kept me in at recess and talked to me about museum professionals—curators, conservators, catalog and label editors. The age, the northside Indianapolis neighborhood, the profession and surname—everything is right for her to be my unknown artist, and I like to think that this painting that so strikes me now is an indirect bequest from the woman who nudged me toward museums and art history fifteen years ago.
The Girl in my kitchen is the least important, least beautiful, least charming object in my house. Often I don’t like her and sometimes I think I’ve kept her only because I hate the wall calendars Matt’s mother gives me at Christmas, and I won’t risk the residue of cooking grease accumulating on any better painting. But despite my lack of affection, I know that my attachment to her is sincere; she will never be banished to the guest bathroom or abandoned at the local Goodwill. She has too much personality—it’s no wonder we find ourselves at odds. With lip curled in repugnance or drawn into an almost-smile, she is only as temperamental as I am, and though our looks are dissimilar—her brunette with sallow skin to my dirty blonde with freckles—I have come to think of her as my own selfportrait. She embodies my dissatisfied silent critic, watching me and warning.
HISTORY: Toilette de la mariée/Toilette de la morte
Scene: A dozen girls prepare for a country wedding. All wear white. Girls 1 and 2 lay the table and place the tureen just so, 3 and 4 draw a wooden four-poster from a curtained alcove and unfold sun-bleached linens. Trio practice the song of the favors. The groom’s party is coming to besiege them, to sing of the gifts they would offer a welcoming bride. At first the Trio will declaim:
My father is sorry, my mother is sad,
And I am a maiden too kind by far
At such an hour my gate to unbar.
5 and 6 wait at the window, keeping watch. Little Marie reposes in a chair, dressed only in a chemise and petticoat. 7 bends close with a pressed white gown, 8 weaves orange blossoms for the bride’s hair, 9 slips on the shoes. They bustle about, intent on their tasks, and only Little Marie’s sister can look upon her happy face, reflected in the mirror she holds. (Later, they will all be shrouded in white sheets and as a final test, the bridegroom will have to select his true love from the identical ghosts before him.)
I’ve never actually seen Toilette de la mariée, the preparation of the bride. The artist, Gustave Courbet, was the father of Realism; he challenged the idea of traditional history painting with his monumental canvases devoted to prosaic French peasants. His Burial at Ornans is a standard of art history survey courses, but 1850 audiences were shocked, and perhaps a little disgusted, to see the ragged rural petit bourgeoisie depicted life size—such grand proportion was suitable only for scenes of myth and historic legend. Even worse, the figures were unattractive. Instead of professional models, Courbet called into his studio the red faces and chafed hands of the villagers who had attended his great uncle’s funeral. Toilette is another such work, standing taller than I am and eight feet across, dominating the gallery wall. It depicts an interior, a dozen girls preparing la mariée for her wedding. Though strong, merry, and capable looking, they are not especially beautiful. To a viewer accustomed to pristine Neoclassicism and passionate Romanticism, their cottage seems drab and shabby, even grim.
The canvas entered the Smith College collection in 1929; the school Bulletin described the acquisition with its “radiant creature in her teens,” “lovely action,” and “local flavor of rural France.” Courbet modeled the scene after George Sand’s pastoral novella, The Devil’s Pool, and its historically accurate rendering of the pagan ceremonies still prevalent in nineteenth century French villages. I’m typically partial to this sort of painting—domestic scenes, normal people at work or play—and I think I should see the charm in such busy, feminine community. I should like Courbet for granting such simple rituals the scale and attention of le grand genre. And while I love Sand’s story of the widower Germaine finding love and a mother for his children in the poor, shepherdess Little Marie, my knowledge of the painting makes me pensive and a little sad. Talk of marriage proved misleading when a 1977 art historian disputed the optimistic misnomer, Toilette de la mariée. Close study and x-rays of the bride’s face and linen-covered body revealed the naked corpse who originally sat in her chair. No matrimonial themes exist in original catalogs of Courbet’s work, she said, and she definitively linked this canvas to the mysterious title of a painting never found, Toilette de la morte—preparation of the dead girl.
Courbet spoke of plans for a funerary depiction, with a gray greenish corpse (“a color that suggests it must already smell bad”) as the centerpiece. In rural France at the time, a young woman’s death was marked by bittersweet ritual. Her friends prepared a wedding feast, sat vigil with the body, and imagined a happier fate. Death and marriage rites were so similar that we imagined it too, wanting Little Marie to be pale only with apprehension and ignoring provenance documents that proved there never was a Toilette de la mariée.
Scene: Once, Little Marie was nude and slumped, wooden, in the selfsame chair. 1 and 2 prepared rice and waffles, matrimonial fare with which to console themselves. 3 and 4 readied the shroud. Trio read funerary missals instead of nuptial lyrics. They heeded superstition and veiled the mirror.
X-rays and infrared reflectograms confirmed this palimpsest—a corpse turned bride—but they revealed nothing about Courbet’s intent, and I am left uneasy. How long did little Marie sit slumped, stripped, and what made Courbet finally paint her a little white shift? As much as I want it to be pity—she would have looked so grisly exposed—I know too much about Courbet’s sometimes mercenary compliance to taste to suspect any motivation but the intervention of nineteenth century ideas of propriety. A naked and decaying female corpse would never sell, not even with the addition of a gown. Courbet lifted the slack neck, gave Little Marie a mirror, brought her back to life in time for her wedding day.
Pentimenti comes from the Italian pentirsi—to repent—and refers to changes an artist may make before releasing a work to the world: the position of a foot, the folds of a gown. Canvas was expensive, and artists—Courbet especially—often painted over an unsuccessful image. But a pentimento is only a little regret, one that doesn’t change the theme or subject. The tilt of the subject’s face, a mirror placed in her hand—these are mere pentimenti. Even so, the act resurrected a dead girl and I can’t help wondering how the change was meant.
The two rituals—toilette de la mariée and toilette de la morte—were so similar perhaps they amused the painter. When he willed the painting to his younger sister Juliette, he called it La Fiancée de la mort, a title that anticipated both imminent death and marriage and left Little Marie shrouded in ambiguity. Courbet never married—he felt artists had no business to wed; a married man was “a reactionary.” Did the staunch realist look at popular scenes of romance in painting and print and mock them? He seems to say: the only thing more romantic than young love is young death, and if Little Marie is not yet dead, it is only a matter of time. Courbet leaves it up to the viewer to identify with romance or with reality, to choose the manner of her demise—a shabby pine coffin or forty years of hard labor, too many children, not enough food.
Courbet used his art to comment on the grim social realities of nineteenth century France—perhaps the painting makes me uneasy because I see in it his dismal judgment of the fate of young women. He wrote of the married man becoming “a sort of jealous proprietor… who says ‘My wife!’ as he would say my cane or my umbrella.” Does he suppose Little Marie will find such empty affection once the orange blossoms in her wreath have withered? The pagan rites of death and marriage are one and the same for a jeune femme. Courbet invites us to ask: Is what follows worse for la mariée or for la morte? He begs the question: Are they not the same but for a breath and a veil?
When Toilette de la morte was lent to Indianapolis for a few months, I too sat vigil with Little Marie, visiting her daily. I wished I didn’t know how tenuous her title and her position were. I prefer to envision the reflection of her pretty face in the hand mirror, awaiting the festive ceremony with its rituals of games and peasant plays. I want to be able to imagine that second scene in George Sand’s story, the plays and tests Germaine must endure in order to win his Little Marie. I want to see him and his friends serenade the girls with verses about the gifts they will bring her—a handkerchief new, love—and the care they will provide—a good husband, too, love—and I want to see les femmes resist and finally relent—Here’s a sweetheart for you, love—and let them in the house. The scene I love best was never committed to canvas, the moment when Little Marie and her friends are hidden away under white shrouds and Germaine must discern which little spirit is his own true love. In Sand’s novella he “commits his soul to God” and chooses right.
I don’t know what will happen later, after the story ends, and I’ve never imagined that far. Perhaps Little Marie will be la fiancée de la mort, a tragic and cathartic end for a pretty tale. Or perhaps the novella captures all of her life’s romance—when it ends, she will settle, content, into the mundanity, the realism, of marriage. She will become caretaker and homemaker, second wife and stepmother. Courbet would consider it a slow death, but I think, I hope, she will be happy.
I’ve never seen Toilette de la mariée, the preparation of the bride. It was retitled Toilette de la morte before I ever visited a museum or made up stories about a painting. Even so, I like to imagine away provenance, historic record, x-rays and reflectograms. I pretend that conservators have yet to see the dead girl beneath the veil, to find the naked, greenish figure beneath the trousseau negligee. I disregard the research and any knowledge of artistic intent, and see a bride and her friends preparing for a country wedding. Even if rural life would prove harsh, in my mind, she is the center of attention today and is momentarily happy. Her village will celebrate for days before returning to the fields.
Emily C. Watson is from Indianapolis, Indiana. She is an MFA candidate at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with poet Matt Anserello and two retired greyhounds. This is her first published work. (4/2009)