QUOTE: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Edgar Allan Poe

A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)

A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…”

George Gordon Byron

3-D Beauty in a Flat Screen World

The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.  courtesy Pinterest

The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.
courtesy Pinterest

Imagine spending 15 years on a work that people see in passing, can touch if they want to, but hardly notice. Plastic Barbie dolls and Star Wars figurines, Pier One trinkets and Walmart cement garden gnomes are hardly capable of producing the emotions and awe once felt by viewers of  public sculpture. But can you blame us modern consumers? Can we really turn to modern abstract and often ugly sculpture with the same sense of wonder and optimism as the men and women living in the “American Renaissance”?

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox

Here’s Augustus Saint Gaudens working. Kenyon Cox, another artist looks on. How easy on the eyes this portrait, lovingly rendered, is. Yet Augustus Saint Gaudens was a sculptor and in a world of flat screens and paper books a sculptor’s work looks dull.

My husband and I visited a local ironworks art weekend crowded with people trying to be different, shocking and mysterious. What lacked was beauty and heart. (and art). My husband does not fancy himself a sculptor, but the house he built for our ducks has integrity and a loveliness that springs from something deeper than wanting to be cool.

Augustus didn’t come from wealth. His father recognized an artistic sensibility in his son and apprenticed him to a cameo maker. Later he took classes at Cooper Union and went to Paris where one day he spotted a young fellow American art student. Maybe he whispered a sweet nothing, but she could not hear him.  Augusta Fisher Homer was deaf but not blind to the charms of a young, sensitive and ultimately extremely generous man. They fell in love and married.

Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy thehistoryblog.com

Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy thehistoryblog.com

Public men paid for beauty back then. This was when people thought art was interchangeable with beauty. Pompous, greedy men some of them were but these materialist businessmen  still commissioned a Diana for everyone to admire or a William Tecumseh Sherman (before modern and often sloppy scholarship made him such a villain). What do modern magnates do, I wonder? Maybe some quietly do great things, but I long for public beauty not abstraction and Piss Christ.

If you’ve ever gone to the MET in New York you notice in the Greek Art galleries a hush almost as if people know they should truly love the beauty so unlike what they see just outside on the busy street. It’s difficult to sit with these sculptures because we’ve become so unused to sublime beauty. Where’s the color? Where’s the stuff that makes our blood boil? Maybe these quiet sculptures shame us when they remind us how easily our tastes are satisfied with McDonalds happy meal sculptures of the girl from FROZEN.

shermanHo hum I’ve often felt passing one of the greatest American equestrian sculptures ever. Yes, Sherman helped win a war. Now we debate motives and hate them for their lack of purity. But who are we? Lost in a modern world of cynicism and inertia. Happy to point fingers–you’re racist! sexist! elitist! Determined to view the pit and drag it into every conversation and every art work.

Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by
Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his naivete may have thought the men who commissioned his work were doing a fair-to-middling job with the country. I don’t know but Louis Auchincloss had this to say about the men and women of the late 19th century and Augustus Saint Gaudens in particular: “Yet when I turn back to Saint-Gaudens’s work, including the portrait bas-reliefs–those wonderful, grave, reflective men, women and children, so subtly conceived and so exquisitely rendered–I have a sense that the American Renaissance may have been a better time in which to live than ours. Its people seem so serious, so high-minded. They seem so determined to make a better and more beautiful world, so concerned with order and dignity. I envy their apparent tranquility. I wish I could share their sense of purpose and progress.”

No Taxation without Representation!

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

“Lady Godiva, was an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to a legend dating back at least to the 13th century, rode naked – only covered in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants. The name “Peeping Tom” for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend in which a man named Tom had watched her ride and was struck blind or dead.” Wikipedia

Thank you Janice Wald at Refections for reminding me of this painting.

Beauty is Unfair

Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921

Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921

The young goatherd Paris had no idea he’d start a war. All he wanted was the most beautiful mortal of his day–Helen of Troy. Beauty and equality do not go hand in hand. It’s not enough to be one of the beauties or to admire one of the beauties. We must crown one as supreme.

Juno, Venus and Minerva quarreled amongst themselves over who was most lovely. They bribed a goatherd to settle things. But beauty is unsettling. It’s fleeting and it makes us wonder about fairness. Beauty captivates us even when we think we should know better. Shouldn’t we love even second-rate art? Beauty shows us the most pleasing sights, yet leaves us sometimes feeling resentful and inadequate.

Way back in the mists of time beautiful women came to symbolize the virtues of nations. P.T. Barnum in 1854 saw another way to capitalize on humanity’s beauty cravings. After successful dog, chicken and baby beauty contests he stepped it up with the first American beauty contest. People were outraged at the idea of virtuous young women being ogled and judged. Barnum scratched his head. Beauty should be celebrated as one of the finer things in life. We all secretly judge and make friends first on their attractiveness. We look at masterpieces in the high falutin’ museums because those nudes take our breath away. Who are we kidding?

She even had a beautiful dog!

She even had a beautiful dog!

Barnum never gave up. He changed the rules ever so slightly. Okay, no women standing there getting uncomfortable. Send me your daguerreotypes and a little bit about what you do as a beautiful person. If you win you get a fancy portrait done of yourself instead of the promised dowry for the old contest. Seems pretty girls like selfies. The contest was a grand success at combining low-brow and high-brow entertainment for the masses.

I know some of you will cry, “How snobby of you to delineate between high and low! Children’s drawings and Renoir are just the same!” “Beautiful women should not be objectified!” No one puts a gun to the beauty’s head (do they?).

I get it. Ugly people can lurk within their beautiful bodies, but let’s not pretend we aren’t mesmerized by symmetry and smooth skin. In the interest of being nice and democratic let’s not embrace mediocrity as a badge of honor. I’ve never entered a beauty contest and I’m well past my prime, but I don’t hate beautiful people. I don’t automatically love them either. I just like to look at them.

Margaret rocking the stockings.

Margaret rocking the stockings.

The first Bathing Beauty Pageant  took place at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in 1880 as an advertizing gimmick.

“The modern beauty pageant’s origin is traceable to the “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest” in 1921, which was held to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. Local newsman Herb Test created history by offering to title the girl who won “Miss America.” Out of the eight competitors for the title, Margaret Gorman, who represented the nation’s capital as Miss Washington D.C., was declared the beauty queen, winning the first-ever Miss America title.” theloc.gov

Love

Love and the Maiden John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1877

Love and the Maiden
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1877

She

 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
    for your love is more delightful than wine.
 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
    your name is like perfume poured out.
    No wonder the young women love you!
 Take me away with you—let us hurry!
    Let the king bring me into his chambers.

Friends

We rejoice and delight in you;
    we will praise your love more than wine.

She

How right they are to adore you!

 Dark am I, yet lovely,
    daughters of Jerusalem,
dark like the tents of Kedar,
    like the tent curtains of Solomon.
 Do not stare at me because I am dark,
    because I am darkened by the sun.
My mother’s sons were angry with me
    and made me take care of the vineyards;
    my own vineyard I had to neglect.
 Tell me, you whom I love,
    where you graze your flock
    and where you rest your sheep at midday.
Why should I be like a veiled woman
    beside the flocks of your friends?

Friends

 If you do not know, most beautiful of women,
    follow the tracks of the sheep
and graze your young goats
    by the tents of the shepherds.

He

 I liken you, my darling, to a mare
    among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.
 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings,
    your neck with strings of jewels.
 We will make you earrings of gold,
    studded with silver.

She

 While the king was at his table,
    my perfume spread its fragrance.
 My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh
    resting between my breasts.
 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
    from the vineyards of En Gedi.

He

 How beautiful you are, my darling!
    Oh, how beautiful!
    Your eyes are doves.

She

 How handsome you are, my beloved!
    Oh, how charming!
    And our bed is verdant.

He

 The beams of our house are cedars;
    our rafters are firs.

She

 I am a rose of Sharon,
    a lily of the valleys.

He

Like a lily among thorns
    is my darling among the young women.

She

 Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
    is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
    and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
 Let him lead me to the banquet hall,
    and let his banner over me be love.
 Strengthen me with raisins,
    refresh me with apples,
    for I am faint with love.
 His left arm is under my head,
    and his right arm embraces me.
 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
    by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
Do not arouse or awaken love
    until it so desires.

 Listen! My beloved!
    Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
    bounding over the hills.
 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
    Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
    peering through the lattice.
 My beloved spoke and said to me,
    “Arise, my darling,
    my beautiful one, come with me.
 See! The winter is past;
    the rains are over and gone.
 Flowers appear on the earth;
    the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
    is heard in our land.
 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
    the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
    my beautiful one, come with me.”

He

 My dove in the clefts of the rock,
    in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
    let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
    and your face is lovely.
 Catch for us the foxes,
    the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
    our vineyards that are in bloom.

She

 My beloved is mine and I am his;
    he browses among the lilies.
 Until the day breaks
    and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved,
    and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
    on the rugged hills.

 All night long on my bed
    I looked for the one my heart loves;
    I looked for him but did not find him.
 I will get up now and go about the city,
    through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
    So I looked for him but did not find him.
 The watchmen found me
    as they made their rounds in the city.
    “Have you seen the one my heart loves?”
 Scarcely had I passed them
    when I found the one my heart loves.
I held him and would not let him go
    till I had brought him to my mother’s house,
    to the room of the one who conceived me.
 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
    by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
Do not arouse or awaken love
    until it so desires.

 Who is this coming up from the wilderness
    like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and incense
    made from all the spices of the merchant?
 Look! It is Solomon’s carriage,
    escorted by sixty warriors,
    the noblest of Israel,
 all of them wearing the sword,
    all experienced in battle,
each with his sword at his side,
    prepared for the terrors of the night.
 King Solomon made for himself the carriage;
    he made it of wood from Lebanon.
 Its posts he made of silver,
    its base of gold.
Its seat was upholstered with purple,
    its interior inlaid with love.
Daughters of Jerusalem, come out,
    and look, you daughters of Zion.
Look on King Solomon wearing a crown,
    the crown with which his mother crowned him
on the day of his wedding,
    the day his heart rejoiced.

Song of Songs 1-3

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