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Nothing Special


On Friday afternoon, Ms NOLA and I went to the Frick Collection. It was fairly crowded, with lots of visitors listening to those handheld lecture thingies. I'm sure that you can learn a lot from such devices, but I don't think that you can really see anything while you're soaking up the textual details. Looking at pictures is not easy, and I can't do two things at once.

Not that I refrain from pointing out things to my companions. In front of Bellini's Saint Francis in the Desert, I remarked to Ms NOLA that this magnificent picture is caught in the tension between the Netherlandish love of schematic detail, so characteristic of fifteenth-century paintings and illuminations, and the new realism of the High Renaissance. It's an image that refuses to settle down. The chapel in the alcove to the right and the hill town in the distance are buzzing with points of visual interest that have nothing to do with the saint's stigmatization; that they are also symbols simply adds to the potential racket. What keeps the painting from dissolving into an unruly mess is Francis's rapt head and the strangely blue-green rocks behind him.

All I actually said was, "This picture is so caught between the medieval and the Renaissance."

Then we went to drink from the fountain that is Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Oh, that yellow, ermine-trimmed jacket, a magic cape that transports us beyond fashion. I didn't say anything.

I studied The Countess d'Haussonville, as I usually do, wondering about her strange right arm. Sloping shoulders were all the rage when the picture was painted, but that arm appears to project from the countess's ribs.

We missed the collection of French prints from Weimar that was exhibited over the summer. I had wanted to go, but other things got in the way. I'd really like to have seen Boucher's Triton, above. It is so much more powerful than his paintings. I can feel the thrust, the force of the Triton's outstretched left arm.

So we saw nothing special, nothing that isn't on view every day at the Frick. It was perhaps for that reason that Ms NOLA remarked, as we left, that she had forgotten, now that she lived in a city with no shortage of them, how vitally calm museums are.


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