Rachel Cohen

Cassatt The Child's Bath

Cassatt The Child039s Bath

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath, 1893, Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Today, I am thinking about loving a child, and worrying about them.

Over the last few years, I have spent a fair amount of time with this painting, seeing it sometimes with our children, sometimes by myself.

Every part of it is full of understanding.

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin, Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street), 1948. Terra Foundation of Art. All detail photographs Rachel Cohen.

Between the thirties and the end of World War II, there was perhaps as radical a change in the psychological perspective of the Negro American toward America as there was between the Emancipation and 1930.

—Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America

When I looked at this painting, painted in 1948, Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) at length this winter, I was very struck by the way one side of the painting is very clearly in color, and the other very clearly emphasizes black and white. The color division is so evident that you have to think about it.

I do not think it is clear what you have to think, though. You might think that is a kind of commentary on the way that black and white are invented, and that the world is actually enormous varieties of color. You might think that it is a thought about imposed divisions, or about the way political lines are drawn on city streets. Or you might not.

The group of lines which are most obviously evocative of a figure are a part of the black and white territory, but also have a lot of yellow around them, which was Delaney’s most significant color, and one he often used in conjunction with light and inner light.

I saw the painting, which belongs to the Terra Foundation, in the basement storage of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was hung down fairly low and I had to sit on the ground to see it, and to photograph it. It was also lit from the side by a conservation lamp, which allows the depth of the paint and the shadows cast by the paint itself to be discernible in the photographs.


Yesterday morning I reread James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.” You will remember that one of the things it circles around is the death of his father in 1943. Between the day of Baldwin’s father’s funeral, and the day of driving his father to be buried, an insurrection broke out in Harlem.

“Notes of a Native Son” is partly about the different feelings in the streets that James Baldwin, in the heightened state of grief, tension, war, outburst, was able to discern, and, later, to write about. The essay “Notes of a Native Son,” was published twelve years later, first as an essay in a magazine, then in the book of the same title, both in 1955.

There has been a lot of historical analogizing lately, and I, too, have been trying to figure out what is happening in 2020 by considering the flu of 1918, the Great Depression, the events of 1968. Because I read Baraka’s Blues People a few weeks ago, and because I wanted to think about Beauford Delaney’s 1948 painting, Untitled (Village Street), I’ve turned to the 1940s with a different attention.

In the 1940s, James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney were close friends – sometimes like a father and a son, sometimes like a mentor and a student, sometimes with the closeness of lovers, though they were not lovers, at different times one was the caretaker of the other, they were always artist-friends. They formed ideas together, about many things, about city streets, reflection, about being a Black man and a queer man on a city street in the midst of a World War and a very difficult period of racial strife.


I had the idea of setting some quotations from “Notes of a Native Son” next to Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) of 1948 that I began considering here on Monday, and which I am thinking about this week, partly as a way of remaining aware through all the parts of my life of the courage of protestors right now.

Yesterday, I was unable to complete this set of reflections with the time they required. I also wanted to honor the day of reflection that many were observing yesterday by not posting. I found on reading through “Notes of a Native Son” that I really just wanted to quote the whole thing. So there is a link to a pdf of it here and at the end of this essay. Baldwin's essay is a reflection partly about losing a parent in the midst of pandemonium, and about the 1943 insurrection in Harlem. It is a deep experience to read it now.

If you are still here, then I will say a few things about Baldwin and Delaney’s relationship and the Delaney painting. Then I have put some passages from the Baldwin essay, and especially about what the streets looked like after looting. And this let me think a bit about meanings of abstraction and jaggedness, and perhaps you will find that idea is worth something if you get to it.


Baldwin had first met Delaney in 1940, when Baldwin was fifteen. He began spending quite a bit of time with Delaney in the Village, which was a different set of streets than the ones in Harlem where Baldwin had been raised, more Bohemian, less confined and restricted in racial terms.

Toward the end of his life, in the 1985 essay “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin wrote about what it meant to him to first go through the door of Delaney’s studio, and to meet a Black man who was an artist, “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” They walked the streets of the Village together, Baldwin learning from Delaney, and Delaney from Baldwin, and Delaney told Baldwin to look at the puddles, the oil in the city puddles, the way the colors refracted the city streets.

In “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin circled back to 1943 and its conjunction of different griefs and transformations, “When my father died, Beauford helped me to bury him and I then moved down to the Village.”

Part of what I am asking myself and my images of this painting today is, does this untitled landscape, which parenthetically states a location in the Village, Greenwich Village, also carry Baldwin’s memories of the streets of Harlem, as they were at different times, including the time of the insurrection?


Baldwin published one of his earliest essays “The Harlem Ghetto” in February of 1948, presumably before this painting was finished, perhaps even before it was begun. So that Delaney would obviously have had Baldwin’s ideas about city streets in his head as he worked.

“The Harlem Ghetto” is unlike the first published essay by any other writer in history. Still, it is profound to then read “Notes of a Native Son,” and to see the writer Baldwin had made himself into by 1955.

And, or, also, did this painted streetscape, or even the potential of this streetscape, help to conserve or transform for Baldwin something of his own understanding that he would carry with him when he went abroad to France later in 1948 to go on becoming the writer he became, who would look back and write “Notes of a Native Son”?


Notes of a Native Son opens:

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.

The second section begins:

I had returned home around the second week in June—in great haste because it seemed that my father’s death and my mother’s confinement were both but a matter of hours….

All of Harlem, indeed, seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never before known it to be so violently still. Racial tensions through this country were exacerbated during the early years of the war, partly because the labor market brought together hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared people and partly because Negro soldiers, regardless of where they were born, received their military training in the south. What happened in defense plants and army camps had repercussions, naturally, in every Negro ghetto. The situation in Harlem had grown bad enough for clergymen, policemen, educators, politicians, and social workers to assert in one breath that there was no “crime wave” and to offer, in the very next breath, suggestions as to how to combat it. These suggestions always seemed to involve playgrounds, despite the fact that racial skirmishes were occurring in the playgrounds, too. Playground or not, crime wave or not, the Harlem police force had been augmented in March, and the unrest grew—perhaps, in fact, partly as a result of the ghetto’s instinctive hatred of policemen….

I had never before been so aware of policemen, on foot, on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two. Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people. They were on stoops and on corners and in doorways, and what was striking about them, I think, was that they did not seem to be talking….Another thing that was striking was the unexpected diversity of these groups…. Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists and Spiritualists seemed to be hobnobbing with Holyrollers and they were, alike entangled with the most flagrant disbelievers; something heavy in their stance seemed to indicate that they had all, incredibly, seen a common vision, and on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow.

The churchly women and the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense men had children in the Army. The sleazy girls they talked to had lovers there, the sharpies and the “race” men had friends and brothers there. It would have demanded an unquestioning patriotism, happily as uncommon in this country as it is undesirable, for these people not to have been disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read, not to have been enraged by the posters, then to be found all over New York, which described the Japanese as “yellow-bellied Japs.” …. [E]verybody felt a directionless, hopeless bitterness, as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger. This helplessness and this gnawing uneasiness does something, at length, to even the toughest mnind. Perhaps the best way to sum all this up is to say that the people I knew felt, mainly, a peculiar kind of relief when they knew that their boys were being shipped out of the south, to do battle overseas. It was, perhaps, like feeling that the most dangerous part of a dangerous journey had been passed and that now, even if death should come, it would come with honor and without the complicity of their countrymen. Such a death would be, in short, a fact with which one could hope to live….

I am thinking, reading along here, that communities of color, and all thinking newspaper-readers, have been well aware for nearly three months, that people of color and workers whose jobs are not primarily at computers, are being asked to be “soldiers” on the “front lines,” to deliver the mail, the groceries, the factory-produced meat, the health care, the child care, the economy – and that at the same time these same people knew they were going to be left to die by their government and their employers, who could not be bothered to find them decent protective equipment or to get in place the testing and public health protocols and the economic support that might save their lives. That they had, in fact, been left to die for the last forty years and the last four hundred years and that the infrastructure had been deliberately misbuilt for all that time. And that backing all this up would be the systematic abuse of Black and Brown  people by the police.

I also felt very connected, as I imagine many people do right now to “that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger.” And when that danger – both the danger people I love face through the epidemic and the danger people I love face in continuing to protest – is the direct result of an authoritarian government’s systematic negligence and misguided use of force.


I want to include Baldwin’s description of the streets on the morning they drove his father to be buried with the money that Beauford Delaney had gotten to pay for the burial. But the description comes close to the end of the essay, and is full of considerations that become obscure without the rest of the essay, in parts of which Baldwin has been reflecting on his own struggles, internal and external, with violence, and the struggles he and his father have had with hatred and with pain. So that there is not a sharp judgment that might be taken from these lines when they are quoted and especially when they are quoted by me, a Jewish woman who has been living for a few years in a well-off part of the South Side of Chicago.

Along each of these avenues, and along each major side street—116th, 125th, 135th, and so on—bars, stores, pawnshops, restaurants, even little luncheonettes had been smashed open and entered and looted—looted, it might be added, with more haste than efficiency. The shelves really looked as though a bomb had struck them. Cans of beans and soup and dog food, along with toilet paper, corn flakes, sardines, and milk tumbled every which way, and abandoned cash registers and cases of beer leaned crazily out of the splintered windows and were strewn along the avenues. Sheets, blankets, and clothing of every description formed a kind of path, as though people had dropped them while running. I truly had not realized that Harlem had so many stores until I saw them all smashed open; the first time the word wealth ever entered my mind in relation to Harlem was when I saw it scattered in the streets. But one’s first, incongruous impression of plenty was countered immediately by an impression of waste. None of this was doing anybody any good. It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores.

It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.

Part of what has caught my attention in these days is the way that the city streets carried, for Baldwin, the abstract understandings of the people who lived near those streets, reflections on the meanings of their lives, on the situation of their country, and on objects themselves, what kind of value they should have, how they could or should be splintered, shattered, made jagged and broken. I want to add that I am not aestheticizing violence and destruction, or arguing for violence or destruction, I am thinking that street jaggedness has significances that cannot be understood if one pretends that it has no abstract intentions, understanding, and meaning.

Amiri Baraka writes, brilliantly, about the kind of bebop music that emerged in the 1940s, and the meanings to be understood in the jaggedness and shatteredness of the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker (whose portrait and music Delaney painted.)

Abstraction has been so deeply misunderstood. Like all good things, and like all things which may be good and may be bad and may be made to be profitable, it has been made the province of the wealthy, the white, the western, the first world, the male, the straight, the sane, the able, the scientist, the technology worker, the orderly, etc, etc, etc. But just look at abstraction in the hands of a person who was none of these things in any expected way:


Perhaps in the coming days I will see a way to quote the last few pages of Baldwin’s essay, but today I can’t see how to do it. It feels too much like taking a detail photograph of a place of reverence.

Tara Geer At Home, Drawn

Tara Geer At Home Drawn

Tara Geer, drawing ca. 2012-13. Detail. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Tara Geer draws from life. There were some months, maybe years, where she spent hours up on the roof of her studio building on 133rd Street sketching the tar stains. She drew backpacks and socks, the buses in the city lot across the street, and the cobwebs in the freight elevator shaft. Right now she is sheltering with her family, and like many artists cannot get to her studio.

The things she looks for are oblique, at odds. A relationship of the edges from two separate objects seen across space; a shape from wood grain but no longer embedded in a pattern, and not the dark lines from the wood, but the lighter spaces between.

This gives the drawings a quality of life. The lines have the animated movement of the living world; they seem a part of understood space that can be moved through and felt, even though they don’t fall into an easily recognizable form. In this way, they have something in common with Chinese calligraphy, a form Geer attends to, where the characters may seem to leap and spin – a drawing, a thinking mind, a figure, all at once.

As in memories or dreams, the details have been recombined to draw attention to something that matters, though, also as in memories or dreams, sometimes by turning away, veiling, sometimes by stepping akimbo or making a joke.

In many of the drawings, there is a feeling of creatures or beings, that the whole drawing is a being, or that there are creatures lingering in the depths.


This drawing by Tara Geer, made in early 2013, or late 2012, hangs in our dining room.

I see it hundreds of times a day. Sometimes, like this morning, I stand in front of it and study it, with museum-quality attention. Most of the time it is a companion. Or, I do not even notice that I am looking at it, it is a space of reverie, a bit like a window, or a book that one has put down but not yet closed.

This morning I drew some of the areas in it:

This upper corner that seems almost like a planetary area, of axis and orbit.

Two areas where dark angled lines surround an area of wash, of which this is one:

And the central area of tangle.

I thought about it how she managed to make this all one thing that holds together when the pieces are made so disparately, with such different densities and kinds of lines.

It has a lot to do with the wash, and with the whites and grays that run over and through, the thick cloudy areas which hold it together geometrically, spatially, and also psychologically.

I was surprised that after I looked at the tangled area for a while there was a very distinct clarity of the space through and behind. A sense of clear, lit clarity, like the increase in light before sunrise at the end of a quiet street.

It is airy and surprising.

Weekend Space Tara Geer

Geer Drawing

Tara Geer, detail from drawing, ca. 2012-3. Photo Rachel Cohen.

I met the artist Tara Geer at the MacDowell Colony in 2002. For the next nine years or so, we were both living in New York, and I spent quite a bit of time at her studio, looking. Eventually, I came to have three of her works, which are drawings.

This is one that does not have a title, done before May of 2013, probably in early 2013 or late 2012.

It is work that takes attention very seriously, and I hope, even through these photos, will offer contemplation, at the end of another difficult week, looking ahead to another difficult week.

Some areas of the drawing:


Staying close, movement and edges:

Beauford Delaney Close Looking


Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1965. Art Institute of Chicago. Photos Rachel Cohen.

I had about a half an hour with it. The kind people who work at the Art Institute of Chicago had arranged an appointment. It was in the director’s suite, behind an administrator, who typed away at her computer while I was looking and photographing. Which is by way of saying that the impression of calm is hard-won, mostly due to the painting, and to efforts of concentration.

What a painting.

It’s 21 x 26 inches (53.3 by 66 cm). A little taller than it is wide, a painting you could put your arms around. Here I photographed it in six sections, with the edges of frame.

On seeing it, I was struck by the quality of the paint, thin and dry, which I think helps the layers to show through, many thin translucent layers.

Standing quietly, you can trace the way each gesture in paint leads under and over others. You could paint over it, add layers, but it would be difficult to change the foundations, because it is an all-over painting, in free strokes. You could not scrape off an area you wanted to paint again. So it is an oil painting like a watercolor – you just lay it down.

Which isn't to say it was quickly done. Delaney reworked his water colors a lot, returning to them sometimes years later. If he did that kind of long-term reconsideration with this painting, he would have had to continue to work with what’s already there. His abstract paintings held the record of his thoughts about them in an unusually transparent way.

Painted in 1965. He had been in Paris for twelve years, and was now very experienced in a realm of complete abstraction.


Impressions of radiance and gentleness.

I think I started thinking of this painting today partly because I am tetchy, and also sad.

And partly because the tonalities that I came to yesterday in thinking about Poussin’s Landscape with St. John on Patmos are close by. See the striking similarity in palette and quality of light to this area of the Poussin:

How much variety there may be among a handful of colors, closely held.

But really I just want to stop my busy typing and let you look.

Here, the whole painting again, just before taking leave.

Tara Geer: Carrying Silence

Tara Geer walk along the border 2013

Tara Geer, walk along the border, 2013

At Glenn Horowitz, 87 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, NY, 11937, through September 3, 2013. Here is the first section of my catalog essay, "Looking at Tara Geer's Drawings":

One way to begin is just by quietly trying to notice things. In “walk along the border,” your eye might be drawn by the smudges off to the left, or by the white surround and the sense of movement in the white surround.

In my notes: white area with a little falling black squiggle; then other little black details, these somewhere between figures and lines, running on a diagonal from lower left to upper right.

Almost like little embedded panels – as if there is a progress toward the final window.

In the gray an effect of a waterfall down the right-hand side.

A gray patch and a gray triangle make a space between them.

On the right, the softness almost of hair.

An immense variety of texture.

The central column like vertebrae.

This central black part is strangely flat like a mosaic and also has a lot of depth.

A problem I returned to in looking: the skein in the lower right corner seemed dirty in a way that was familiar. After a while I felt that it looked like an old cobweb in which flakes of dirt have gathered. Hesitatingly, I mentioned this to Tara and she said that for a long time she had been stopping the freight elevator at her studio between floors so that she could study the cobwebs. This – the suspended elevator, webs between floors, painstaking attention to the derelict – could be a sort of parable for Tara Geer’s way of looking. The drawing is a meditation on space. It is full of respect for spiders.

A Shawl for Morisot

A Shawl for Morisot

Detail, Portrait of Madame Manet in the Conservatory, ca. 1876-79, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo.

Last summer, the summer of 2018, I was immersed in the work of Berthe Morisot.

I spent three days in Québec City, at the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec, at the revelatory Morisot retrospective, which I reviewed for Apollo Magazine.


I was one of the critics who called for a reconstitution of our understanding of Impressionism with Morisot centrally placed. I said that scholarship and consideration should be given to Morisot in relation to Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Monet, on all of whom she had considerable influence, both as a painter, and as a close friend. I speculated about shows I would like to see – shows of Morisot and Monet, a show on landscape painting, another on gestural painting; another, A Woman Alone: Paintings by Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Valladon, Manet.

In the year that followed, I saw the Morisot show again, in Philadelphia at the Barnes Collection. The months passed, and, in the back of my mind, I went on with a kind of subconscious labor. It really is hard work to change received notions about significance. I have loved Morisot’s work for years, and sought it out in every museum I can; I have been writing about it in this notebook since 2013.


And yet, it is so engrained in my apprehensions – what is important in a painting, what constitutes a discovery, what I am looking for as I first cast my eyes over a canvas – that I am still just at the very beginning of seeing Impressionism again with Morisot worked through my vision.

This summer, of 2019, there was a show at the Art Institute of Chicago called Manet and Modern Beauty. I reviewed this show for Apollo, too, and saw it five or six times over the course of the summer. The Manet show was many years in the planning, and so it would have been hard for the curators to take account of the 2018 Morisot show. It did not seem fair to criticize this lack in my review.

Nevertheless, I feel a missed opportunity, to let the Manet show build upon what was brought out by last year’s Morisot show. The curators’ choice to focus on lesser known works – Manet’s green garden paintings, his late portraits of women alone, his interest in fashion, the delicate still lifes of his last year of illness – meant that they did turn their attention to the paintings most directly in conversation with Morisot. But this conversation was only acknowledged briefly in one wall text, next to a nude that Morisot had bought for herself at Manet’s estate sale after his death. The show focused on the influence several other women had on his work, women with whom he enjoyed conversation, whom he painted, and to whom he sent lovely illustrated letters. But what of one of the geniuses of the period, who was his sister-in-law, and whom he saw sometimes daily, whose paintings he owned and valued, who had painted next to him for nearly fifteen years, and whom he had painted fourteen times? Surely his ambitions in these greener domains had to do with his relationship with Morisot?

* * *

I think it might be interesting to get all the way down to the fine grain of looking at one painting, to see if I can bring out what it would be to see Manet with Morisot in mind. I am trying to give myself the consciousness of someone who, as a child, had always seen Morisots displayed prominently in important museums, had always been told that the freedom of her brushwork was one of the great achievements in the history of paint, one that had opened the gates for gestural abstraction in the 20th century.

At the Manet show, I round a corner and see this:

And the first thing I think, is ‘look at that shawl on the right, that is pure Morisot.' That is just the way that she gets volume by feathered strokes of white – the rush and power of a swan.

I look at the date, signed and dated by the artist in 1876, but, because of a complex set of different historical accounts, considered by curators to have been worked on in the range of 1876 to 1879. Suzanne Manet was a pianist, from the Netherlands. She kept this portrait for herself, and it was not displayed publicly. Eventually, in 1895, she could no longer afford to keep it, and she had to sell it.

Édouard Manet would already have thought of Morisot as a virtuoso of white. Some years before, she had given him her painting of 1869, The Harbor at Lorient, with a woman seated on a stone wall, dressed in white with touches of dark blue. In 1876, beginning this painting of his wife, stopping by Morisot’s studio, which was the center room of the family home, a studio that he saw both because he paid attention to her work, and whenever he went to see his brother, he could have seen The Mirror (1876) taking shape:

He would have seen her white cloths over a long fence, in Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry, from the previous year, of 1875,

Perhaps his eye would have been caught by these two girls, from a painting done in England, also in 1875. She often intermingled white with blue around children, and the waists and necks of women:

He would certainly have known this 1875 portrait, In England, of his brother looking out the window.

How related their two private paintings are: on the left, loved spouse; dark green connecting rail – of a window, of a bench – ; white effusion on viewer’s right.

Manet had a wonderful eye, and he knew what to borrow. In that white scarf or shawl thrown over the back of the green bench, he interlaces a deep many-shaded blue. It was as if he saw it and tossed it off, a magnification of what Morisot was already doing and would do more of. This combination was, and would go on becoming, one of Morisot’s most characteristic – she would use them again and again – her own complex white, with touches of that deep bright blue.

Near the arm of a woman dressed for a ball, in 1879:

Her daughter, Julie Manet, daughter of the painter Eugène Manet, niece of Édouard Manet, uniting three painters, painted here with her nurse, in 1880.

The shawl Manet painted is a record and a prediction, and it is a guide for looking at Morisot's work, and for how he looked at it. It is as if it were Morisot’s shawl, perhaps she left it visiting one day, that he has included as a part of the portrait of his own talented wife. Four adults, three painters and a musician, their private thoughts and the world they shared.

When she painted Serving Girl in 1886, her brother-in-law had been dead for three years. She had thought so much about it -- there it is, pooled again, above and beneath the woman's feet.

Reading Toward Renoir

Reading Toward Renoir

Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum

Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me.  Too sweet, too voluptuous.  All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.


Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment.  It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people.  It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that?  Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers.  In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure.  Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.”  They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.  


When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.”  In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.


There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft.  Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness.  He could be humming.  


Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship.  He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades.  His father was a very good tailor.  Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines.  He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople.  Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live.  “Around them I feel happy.”  


In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.