From time to time, my art obsession moves front and center, pretty much displacing everything else…

February 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm (Art, Italy)

…and then I am happy.

This  time, the “art attack” began with this painting:


…and an accompanying article that appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.

Learning that in 1618, Van Dyck served as chief assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, I looked up the latter in Wikipedia and found this:


It does seem as though through these portraits, the painters are depicting their very souls. It’s something about that sidelong glance…

51lscyRdx6L  I have recently finished Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen. Berenson was a remarkable man. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in a village in Lithuania, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1875. Bernhard was ten years old at the time. The family settled in the Boston area.

After graduating from the Boston Latin School, Berenson matriculated at Boston University. After his freshman hear, he transferred to Harvard. His exceptional abilities were recognized early on, and several wealthy patrons and relatives facilitated his trips to Europe, where he discovered his true vocation.

The story of Bernard Berenson’s journey from a shtetl in Lithuania to the rarefied heights of the fine art world makes for fascinating reading. He became the one of the supreme art historians and attribution experts of turn of the century American and Europe. Along the way he seems to have befriended everybody who was anybody. At Harvard, he was taught by William James; he in turn was the teacher of J. Carter Brown. He was close friends with Edith Wharton; they motored through Europe at regular intervals.

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Perhaps most famously, Berenson was instrumental in securing paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose fabulous collection was ultimately gifted to the city of Boston and to the world beyond.The first old master purchased by Mrs Gardner was The Concert by Jan Vermeer. Acquired in 1892, this was Boston’s first Vermeer and America’s second:


In 1894, Berenson secured for Mrs Gardner a painting by Sandro Botticelli entitled The Tragedy of Lucretia. It was the first work by that artist to become part of an American collection:

Suicide_lucretiaRachel Cohen says of this painting that it is “rigorous and austere.” She adds:

It shows, simultaneously, three scenes from the story of the virtuous Roman maiden, who is raped and then commits suicide by dagger. Each scene is framed by carefully divided architecture,  which gives the viewer something of the feeling of watching a play on a stage.

In 1896, Gardner, Berenson, and Otto Gutekunst, another expert collector,  scored their greatest coup by acquiring The Rape of Europa by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio).  According to Rachel Cohen, this work is “…still considered by many to be the greatest Italian picture in America:”


The Vermeer, alas, can no longer be seen at the Gardner Museum. Along with twelve other works of art, it was taken as part of the famous heist of March 18, 1990. The FBI has a page devoted to the theft, and a Time Magazine article features excellent pictures of the stolen paintings. (As it happened, Ron and I were in the Boston area that summer on a long planned trip. We visited the Gardner for the first time, and  I still remember how, right as we entered, there were tables with the names and photos of the missing works, accompanied by a poignant plea for any helpful information that members of the museum-going public might possess.)

Berenson’s expertise in attribution was highly sought after. In one particularly acrimonious case, he found himself at odds with influential dealer Joseph Duveen and other art historians over whether a painting had been done by Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) or by Titian. The work in question is The Adoration of  the Shepherds, also sometimes called The Allendale Nativity after the previous owner who resided in North Yorkshire. The painting is now generally accepted as the work of Giorgione – generally, but not universally. (See the Wikipedia entry.) A thoughtful and erudite essay on this controversy can be found on the blog Three Pipe Problem.

Here is the painting:

Giorgione_014I kept enlarging this image until I suddenly found myself focused on the tear in the standing shepherd’s garment, just above the elbow. At that moment, my heart contracted and tears filled my eyes. Not a wealthy man, not a potentate from a great kingdom – just a man in search of pure goodness – and as entitled to partake of it as anyone else. What a moment!

It does seem to me a painting of almost otherworldly beauty.

Giorgione blazed like a comet  across the firmament of the Italian Renaissance, his light all too soon extinguished. He died in 1510 when he was only just past the age of thirty, probably yet another victim of the ravages of the Plague. His influence reached for beyond his years.

From Rachel Cohen:

In Berenson’s life, the reconciliation of pricelessness and price was a continual struggle, but it allowed him to see nuances of the art he studied and the commerce he served that modern authentication procedures pass by. His own understanding of Giorgione had shades no X-ray could render. When Berenson had written his first book on the Venetian painters, sixty-three years earlier, glorying and delighting in Boston’s favorite painter and his own happy powers of perception, he had said of Giorgione that “his pictures are the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height” and that what was most characteristic in his work was “the lovely landscape…the effects of light and colour, and…the sweetness of human relations.”

Berenson on Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin):

…you feel a poignant thrill of transfiguring sensation, as if, on a morning early, the air cool and dustless, you suddenly found yourself in presence of a fairer world, where lovely people were taking part in a gracious ceremony, while beyond them stretched harmonious distances line on line to the horizon’s edge.

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504

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The Pleasures of Paired Reading

February 19, 2014 at 2:12 am (books)

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A week ago Saturday, Jean, Marge, and I presented Book Bash, a program of book talks, for our colleagues in AAUW.  In past years, a theme has been chosen  for this program – or rather, a theme would emerge, based on recent reading by the presenters. The theme this year came from my own reading experience. I call it paired reading.

I’ve recently found myself reading in sequence books that are linked with some type of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. The reverse frequently happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography. For example, Tom Williams’s biography of Raymond Chandler sent me back to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when Chandler was writing his gritty and cynical (yet mesmerizing) stories for  the pulps.

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41zv93R-DpL  Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep


When we present Book Bash, we always create a book list for the attendees. Here’s what this year’s list looked like:

Jean’s Selections:

(In which the phenomenon of ‘paired reading’ makes an intriguing appearance)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
& Sons, by David Gilbert
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by  Tilar J Mazzeo
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 years of popular culture in  the White  House, by Tevi
Troy (paired with some presidential reads)

 Marge’s Selections

(in which ‘paired reading’ appears yet again…)

The Conjuror’s Bird, by Martin Davies (paired with People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger (paired with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton (paired with Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley)
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell

 Roberta’s Selections

(in which the ‘paired reading’ phenomenon persists)

The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath (paired with White Heat, by M.J. McGrath)
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir (paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel)
Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell (paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey
Out of the Black Land, by Kerry Greenwood (paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of  Ancient     Egypt by Barbara Mertz and Ancient Egyptian Literature, an anthology translated by John L. Foster)
The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams


We did not have time to book talk all of our selections, but we did the best we could in the time allotted to us. Jean enjoyed tantalizing our audience with the true identity of Robert Galbraith; in addition, she gave a colorful discourse on the informal cultural pursuits of various denizens of the White House. Her recommended “presidential reads” included Lucy by Ellen Feldman  and Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark.

Marge enjoyed describing  by Kate Morton’s novel The House at Riverton, not least because it provided a neat segue into one of the many recent nonfiction titles about Downton Abbey. Her book talk on The World Without You made many in the audience (including me) want to read it as soon as possible. And her reading  from Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave produced some welcome laughter.

(I’m continually amused by the way in which Downton Abbey keeps intruding itself into discussions, even those on seemingly unrelated topics. In one book group I attended, someone pleaded for an Abbey embargo – to no avail, alas, but we got back to the book in good time.)


All of my own Book Bash selections save one are drawn from the running list I’ve been keeping of my own fairly recent paired reading experiences and possible paired reading  projects for the future, to wit:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Lady in the Tower  by Alison Weir (whose history tours of Britain I would love to take)
Poets in a Landscape  by Gilbert Highet and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (full disclosure: I have not yet gotten through the latter)
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs by Barbara Mertz (I’ve not read this in its entirety either.)
White Heat by M.J. McGrath and The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath (same person, with a slightly altered name)
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings and Mrs. Craddock, The Painted Veil, and/or  the  Ashenden  stories by Somerset Maugham
Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland and The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy
Portobello by Ruth Rendell and “Portobello Road,” one of my all time favorite ghost stories, by Muriel Spark
How To Live by Sarah Bakewell and Montaigne’s Essays (not yet read)
Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and/or The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Haven’t yet read any of these three fiction titles, with the exception of one or two stories by Mansfield.)
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!
Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell and “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” satirical essays by Thomas De Quincey
Life After Life  by Kate Atkinson and Frozen in Time  by Mitchell Zuckoff,, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson and/or The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Haven’t yet read any of the three nonfiction titles.)
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams and any of Chandler’s novels and/or short stories

I’m grateful to Kerry Greenwood for reawakening my interest in ancient Egypt – an interest which has lain largely dormant for several decades. I chose to pair her wonderful historical novel with one of  Barbara Mertz‘s two nonfiction titles on Egypt because this prolific author and Egyptologist is known to many mystery readers for her Amelia Peabody series. (She also wrote romantic suspense under the name of Barbara Michaels.) For some years, Mertz was a local celebrity, living not far from here in Frederick, Maryland. Not long after I went to work at the Howard County Library in 1982, she graciously appeared at one of our programs, and was introduced by my close friend and  fellow librarian Marge – that same Marge who presented with Jean and me at Book Bash. (Barbara Mertz passed away in August of last year; she was 85.)

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It goes without saying that one will never lack for books on the subject of ancient Egypt, but I do want to mention a new one that I just got from the library: A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, by John Romer. It comes highly recommended and looks to be fascinating as well as beautifully written. For her part, Barbara Mertz can be downright poetic. Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs opens with a scene invented to make a particular point right at the book’s outset:

One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C, a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men.

(You can read more on Amazon.)


Barbara Mertz

I greatly loved Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne and was looking forward to diving into the famous Essays. Alas, I found them all but unreadable. Possibly the fault was in the translation, but I also encountered a  fair amount of untranslated Latin, a language I have not seriously student since my sophomore year in high school. (Suggestions, anyone?)

give-me-everything-you-have2  Enduring love

I paired James Lasdun’s true story of stalking with Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love because of the latter’s extremely insightful depiction of what it’s like to be the object of someone else’s obsession. (It is very frightening in both of these narratives, I assure you.)


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Uncommon Arrangements and The Love-Charm of Bombs are both books that furnish enough material for a semester length course (or a series of book discussions). Both deal with multiple authors. I’ve had Lara Feigel’s book out of the library several times but yet have yet to read it. It’s very long, but it features in its cast of characters one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene.

I’ve been enjoying a new historical mystery series by Robin Blake. It’s set in Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740’s and features Titus Cragg, a coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a doctor; the first entry in the series is A Dark Anatomy. I’m on the lookout for a good nonfiction read about that period in English history. (Suggestions welcome.)  And I”m currently immersed in Robert Harris’s exciting new thriller A Gentleman and a Spy. In this novel, Harris tells the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Turn of the century Paris, filled with ugliness, beauty, and above all, intrigue, springs vividly to life. I’ll want to read more on this subject, one I feel I’ve known about my whole life but never really known – if you know what I mean.

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Finally, the “save one” I alluded to above is The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Words fail me when I seek to heap praise on this slender and magnificent work of fiction. There actually is a nonfiction counterpart to this novel: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Davis, currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada, served as consulted for the 1983 film The Return of Martin Guerre. Her book came out at about the same time the movie was released; I recall reading it then and enjoying it very much.

The film is worth seeking out; its meticulous recreation of another time and place shows that like the English, the French possess an almost uncanny ability to channel their own past.


For me, paired reading – or in some cases tripled or even quadrupled reading – has greatly enhanced the pleasure that books continue to give me. I now realize that I was  becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my (seemingly) aimless jumping around from one book to the next. Now that I want to take my reading in more specific (and sometimes esoteric) directions, I’m finding it more challenging to fit in the reading assigned by no fewer than three book clubs (!). While I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made as a result of participating in these groups, I also reserve the right to say “no thanks,” if I feel the need to. You may well ask: Why not just drop out of one, or two, or all three of the book groups? It’s kind of a long story, but the fact is I’d rather stick with all them to the extent possible. (I may be reading myself into a stupor, but I’m happy doing it.)

At any rate, I want to conclude by heartily recommending the intellectual, sensual, and emotional pleasures afforded by paired reading.

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To Russia, with love; or, I can’t seem to get the Polovtsian Dances out of my head

February 12, 2014 at 12:59 am (Ballet, Music, Russophilia)

Why does this phenomenon persist?

It could be due to my watching this over and over again:

And this:

Finally, the Polovtsian Dance sequence was the first music heard in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics:


(Will video eventually be available of this rather amazing spectacle? I certainly hope so!)

The Polovtsian Dance sequence is probably the most famous part of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. This masterpiece is currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1917. It’s being offered as part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD series and can be seen in select local theaters on Saturday March 1. (Will I be there? You bet I will!)


Alexander Borodin, 1833-1887


I first heard the music of Alexander Borodin when I saw the 1955 film Kismet. I was eleven at the time, and I was simply blown away by this movie. I thought I’d never seen or heard anything so romantic and so utterly beautiful. What does an MGM musical have to do  with a Russian composer? An article on the Classic FM site explains.

In the second video above, the one depicting the grand re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater in 2011, you get a lot more than just the Polovtsian Dances. In particular, be sure to watch the excerpt from the ballet Spartacus (at 27:38). (The segment that precedes it, the ballroom scene from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, is also worth your while – a truly opulent production.) In this same video, I’d like to note also the presence in the audience of Sergei Filin (first row second from the right, next to the empty chair, at 1:00). A former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin had become the company’s artistic director in Moscow when, in January of 2013, he was the victim of an acid attack. He has had numerous surgeries since then, but my understanding is that he has lost a great deal of his eyesight – hopefully, not all of it. (The malefactors were caught and tried and are currently serving time.)

In his prime, Sergei Filin was a wonderful dancer. A number of tributes to his artistry have been posted on YouTube. I’m especially fond of this one:


My fascination with Russian culture derives in part from my own background. All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time that they made this epic journey, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

When reading David Brown’s biography of Tchaikovsky, I learned that Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is nicknamed Little Russian. The final movement –  an absolute joy! – makes use of “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song. Here is the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, who was in his time a tireless champion of Russian music:

(As best as I can determine, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is now known as The Russian State Symphony Orchestra. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. Russia, he says, is a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

So now, of course, I can’t get the finale of the Little Russian Symphony out of my head. No matter -I’ll gladly let it dwell there, right alongside the Polovtsian Dances.

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