What a pleasure it is to be once again reading John Updike!
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1954, John Updike set out to be a graphic artist. Toward that end, he went to London and attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. His actual aspiration was to be a cartoonist. In the introduction to Always Looking, he exclaims: “‘How I did love Big Little Books!'”
Upon returning to the U.S., Updike moved with his family to New York. He began contributing regularly to the New Yorker; thus, his career as a writer, rather than an artist, was launched.
Updike begins the collection Always Looking with a brief, lively, and cogent essay on some of the high points of American art with “…the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley.”
Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner.
This portrait of Paul Revere is probably Copley’s most famous work – though not, in Updike’s view, his best: “The shirt is splendid, but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful.”
On the other hand, Copley’s portrait of Epes Sargent “…shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth.” Updike adds: “The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Sargent’s shoulder from his powdered wig.”
I love this portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, a woman I’ve not previously heard of, although I should have:
Of Winslow Homer, Updike tells us: “Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. Specifically the Civil War, at the behest of Harper’s Weekly. One of the illustrations that he produced for that periodical is entitled The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty:”
Updike notes that Boys in a Pasture “…gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet–we can feel the grass tickle them.”
Was ever a work of art so succinctly and gracefully summed up!
Twenty years later, Homer produced this masterwork:
From the vantage point of his cottage on Prouts Neck, in Maine, “Homer wrested images of untamed wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated.” Updike goes on to say of Homer’s famed seascapes in general:
…we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean in action and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representative of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.
Sunstruck straw…dabbled and stabbed…Updike effortlessly transforms prose into poetry.
In the New York Times, in November of 2011, Andrew Delbanco noted that Higher Gossip, a posthumous collection of essays and reviews, serves as a “… reminder of what a prodigy we have lost.” How sad and how true. Always Looking does likewise. (John Updike died in 2009.)
The full text of the above essay, entitled “‘The Clarity of Things,’ can be found on the NEH website.