The Play of Light

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, 1903

People at the National Gallery walk past Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, and stop in front of The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, or The Seine at Giverny. I get it; those paintings are suffused with light—even the sun setting in the West behind the shadowy edifice of the Houses of Parliament gives the evening painting an elegant aura. The sun is barely present in Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, which should not be a surprise in smoke throttled London. But there is no shine—instead of the billows of white smoke in a train yard, or the reflected sun in a lily pond, this is just gray. Another typical London afternoon.

The painting bears all the hallmarks of Impressionism: surfaces broken into brushstrokes, a scene captured with immediacy and revealing a moment. If it were not flanked by brighter canvases, would you stop? Who knows? This painting is gray—the day was gray—and Monet mutes his palette. People move on.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis, 1658

We are drawn to light. In a wood-paneled room of Rembrandts (Gallery 51), the glints and swaths of light in the dark paintings stand out. There may be details in those dour portraits; still, our gaze focuses on those bright patches. Rembrandt uses light to command our eyes toward the centers of the works—or in the case of Philemon and Baucis, to the right side of the painting, where a nimbus flares up behind Philemon—as it should, she received Zeus and Hermes when other, wealthier neighbors turned the gods away. Rembrandt does not play with light like De La Tour (The Repentant Magdalen, with the skull—a memento mori—only seen reflected in a mirror, shows off his use of light). He lights what matters most—this is key lighting, not bravura technique. But this is how we see, and this is what he (or his patrons) wants you to see. He knows that our gaze is like a moth, drawn inexorably to the flame.

John Singer Sargent, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White, 1883

In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White uses the bright cuff of Joanna Hiffernan’s dress not to focus the viewer but to prevent our look from settling here or there. Even the wolf rug’s gaping mouth—in and of itself a supreme irony—does not fix us. We can apply some meaning, but the painting fights against allegory and symbolism. It’s white, only white. Across the room, Sargent uses a flash of white to guide our gaze from the transfixing stare of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White to a point just at her left hip. Sargent’s portait has other work to do. The flash of white is a sleight of hand—and it is Mrs. White’s left hand, in the shadow formed by the folds of her dress, that holds a small bottle. We cannot smell her perfume—it’s a painting, just a painting—but Whistler lets us know that she is not above such enticement. She is not a painting or symphony or play of light.

Claude Monet, The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1881

I tease my students while making a point. I wave my fingers in the air up and to my right, “Bright and shiny! Bright and shiny!” We are eminently distractible—they are; I am. A short woman in a pink shirt and a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna puts her hand on the shoulder of the short man with whom she walks through the museum, stopping for a moment in front of the sunset in one of Monet’s paintings. One part of my mind leaves the gallery room with them. A family—two boys and a dad trailing behind mom, who pauses in front of Redon’s Pandora—enters. I don’t know whether they are from out of town and making the fleeting pilgrimage or revisiting. They leave too quickly for me to ask. Instead, I talk to the couple on the bench beside me, and a woman confesses that she fell in love with Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil when she was 8. “It was everything,” she says. She paints.

I am jealous of painters and their use of color and light to direct the audience’s gaze around their work. Like a symphony, they speed our eyes and slow them down, distract us with flourishes, and satisfy us with thematic or chromatic resonances and unities. Yes, we will “read” the subject, but the paintings open in a dozen other ways, all at once, convincing us and vexing our expectations. I seek to do as much. The galleries inspire me.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.