I visited the Art Institute of Chicago a week ago. I feel fortunate when I’m able to visit an art museum more than once, to the point that I can remember which beloved paintings are where. It’s always confusing when the Mary Cassatt “The Child’s Bath” painting seems to be moved, but surely it’s my orientation and unreliable memory. This visit I ventured into some rooms I had not yet seen, featuring a favorite subject for me: early American furniture and paintings.
I didn’t recognize the painting subjects, probably individuals who were prominent when our country was still a set of backwoods British colonies. Fine white lace, golden ribbon, light blue silk…I thought not only about the position and presentation of the person painted, I thought about each’s life, trying to imagine one of the days when the person came to sit for the painting.
One auspicious lady intrigued me. Had her husband amassed wealth in shipping or whaling, or did she bring the fortune to the marriage, her man clever enough to earn—and intelligent enough to sustain– her affection?
I often think about other days in other centuries, trying to figure how they were similar and different to my days. Tending to personal nourishment, hygiene, social calls, family needs, household dealings, memories, histories, thoughts and desires: all these characterize common, even daily, activities in any person’s life. So what was going on in that woman’s mind, as she sat for the painter?
Her posture erect, her face smooth, her brow unwrinkled, through youth, a relatively easy life, or the painterly touch? Her skin so white, her eyes open to possibilities, a reserved smile that, taken with her eyes, speaks of kindness, the potential for generosity and mirth or light mischief: again, the personality or the painter?
Surely she had some secrets, from loved ones, from long ago, even ones shared with her by friends. Did she keep them? Certainly she had desires, either to be noticed for her station in life, to be appreciated by her family, or to make her way in her world. Did she act on them? Being human, she had to have had heartaches, for living to adulthood implies that through the years, friends move away, relatives die, prospective lovers fade. Did she weather them? Choices sour, ideas prove unfeasible, dreams dissipate. I looked more closely, wishing I could see beyond the oil. What would have made this placid-seeming woman apprehensive? Did she trust the painter; was there chemistry, not necessarily romantic, between them? Who commissioned the painting and what was the agenda?
I have read that George Washington hated to sit for portraits. Maybe they took too much of his time. Maybe his earliest experiences were unpleasant. Or maybe he just had so much to do that he resented seemingly doing nothing, sitting still. I’m so glad he did, in the time before photography.
To sit for a painting definitely swallowed a part of one’s life. Some subjects might have enjoyed it; it might have made them feel special, or as if they had arrived at some longed-for higher social position. I didn’t know what—if anything–the woman in the painting needed to prove. One thing was sure. After the sitting, on came the regular day: pacifying Mama, tending to hubby, correcting children, managing the household, seeing to the horse. At least on the canvas, the subject is alone with her thoughts, lost to time as clearly as her likeness has been saved to posterity.