Grandpa Moses and Other Artists…
As we approach the last half of this third year of what has turned out to be a terrible plague -- consisting of Covid-19 and what seems to be its unlimited variants -- I’m just beginning to realize that there have been some long-lasting changes in my life here in Paris as a result of the threat of this hellish virus that is still very much at large in the world.
At the beginning of 2020, during the time that we Parisiens were confined to our homes, the parks were locked, and walking was restricted to no more than one kilometer in radius, the most
beautiful city in the world became a ghost town. In contrast, there were occasions, like the 10th day of the first strict lockdown in France, when pockets of the city became open-air concert halls like the one pictured here when Opera singer Stephane Senechal sang for his neighbors from his apartment window in Paris.
I felt like we were on a roller coaster with strict regulations alternating with wishful thinking that overcame good sense, which might have kept these regulations in place, eventually wiping out this enemy virus for good and all. But cabin fever set in and people yearned to retrieve their “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” -- to roam the streets at will and to reunite with friends and family, finally.
Perhaps I am not alone in recognizing some significant life changes in the wake of this storm of disease and the threat of disability. Some of these changes led to discovery and productivity, but others created stagnation and long-lasting incapacity, and far too often, death. The latter came way too close for comfort just this month when the best friend of one of my favorites died of Covid. I hope I haven’t put off my readers by starting this blog post with such a downer, but it is a reality. Luckily, my own story is positive by comparison; As some may know, I published two books that I probably never would have written had it not been
for the interruption of my carefree and spontaneous lifestyle in Paris as an American retiree. Of course, there was the sudden loss of contact with so many people, actual physical contact (in this country kisses are called for, even with the strangest of strangers, according to French custom). So many concerts, operas, museum exhibitions, and theater productions were stopped in their tracks and parks shut their gates. Hence, my way of getting a good entertainment fix changed from ‘live’ to Livestream. At best, friendships were conducted on FaceTime or telephonically, and some nearly disappeared altogether. Traveling, even on public transportation within the city, which was something I had adored and depended upon in Paris still feels dangerous to me even today.
After five years of hardly having thought about buying an automobile, something that would be unheard of where I came from in Los Angeles, we went out one day on a lark and found our little Evie, a sleek black cat-of-a-hybrid-Lexus. She affords us the leisure and spontaneity and sense of safety to leave town and to go out into the countryside, even if just for the day. Infrequently we mask up and dare to use taxi cabs for trips too far to take on foot within Paris. Unfortunately, the distance I am capable of walking on any given day has been diminished during these Covid years, not just because of my increasing age, but also due to the restrictions on the distance that we could walk away from home, which left me with muscles weakened just as they were recovering from two fractured feet and, at this age, challenges toward rehabilitation while lacking sufficient self-discipline (which I seem to have mislaid) and even now with a professional trainer (who came highly recommended by a friend who uses him to help stay in shape for ski season).
Of course, on the bright side, Mickey has been spared the difference in our behavior or his surroundings because he is a house cat whom we adopted just before the beginning of the pandemic that, at least until vaccinations came along, kept us mostly at home cuddled up or playing with him day and night. But this habitual closeness also made us wary of leaving him for too long by himself for fear that he would feel that, once again like in his infancy, he had been abandoned.
One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the pandemic was that Ted found it essential to give up his twice-weekly art lessons. His precious time in the Atelier within walking distance of home, learning
how to draw with black and colored pencils, and right at the start of his movement into pastels, which was severely truncated even before the March ’20 confinement. It felt as though Ted was just at
the beginning of realizing a talent he might never have found had we not retired. Then suddenly, everything came to a full stop. Small spaces with no ventilation and several other students plus two instructors became a source of concern. Those spaces were prudently avoided at all costs. And what a cost it turned out to be. Those beautiful still lives, portraits of people and pets, and detailed landscapes,
churned out twice weekly like clockwork for nearly eighteen months, ceased production just before the formal confinement orders in March 2020. I believe this loss saddened me the most. I had playfully given Ted the nickname “Grandpa Moses,” and we had recently visited the local art supply shop where Ted bought a wonderful wooden box filled with an enormous assortment of pastel crayons.
The shopkeeper admired a photo of a flower that Ted had drawn and he was extremely impressed. It had just barely begun to appear that there would be no end to what Ted might create in the future. I proudly shared photos of Ted’s work in emails sent to friends and relatives, both in Paris and abroad, and he received rave
reviews from all. He never seemed to be too moved by the continuous parade of copious compliments that came his way, but I think he must have been secretly pleased. After all, he was just at the dawn of his training, and yet his work was far beyond that of a beginner. It wasn’t that Ted had ambitions to become a pro. He was too modest for that.
But few artists pursue their passion for art intending to become famous; However, the importance of having one’s work experienced and appreciated by others is surely of great importance.
Good artists can evoke emotions and feelings, and sometimes they even change the way people look at the world. I know that Ted’s pursuit of drawing and his desire to do oil painting one day was an inspiration for me to continue to write, even in two genres unrelated to my former publications. Having one’s work
known and experienced is essential for most artists. The relative anonymity of some artists before their death is heartbreaking indeed. In the 16th century, Domenikos Theotokopoulos was nicknamed “El Greco”
while working as an icon painter in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in Italy and Spain. His nickname came from his origins on the Greek island of Crete. El Greco left his homeland to study western-style painting in Venice and was influenced by Titian and Tintoretto. He did not die a poor man by any means, but his legacy after his death was greatly disdained by critics. El Greco was way ahead of his time. It was not until the 18th century that his work was re-examined and he began to get the credit that he deserved.
Johann Vermeer’s paintings were overlooked by art historians for two centuries after his death. He was a contemporary of Rembrandt, but his portraits were of commoners performing common duties. Although a select number of art collectors in the Netherlands did appreciate his work, sadly, many of his works were misattributed to better-known artists such as Metsu or Mieris until after his death. It’s also remarkable that the artist Vincent Van Gogh, a name now synonymous with art, could have only sold a single painting during his lifetime, and that one was said to have been purchased by his brother, Theo. I’ve never discovered any
convincing explanations of the origins of Van Gogh’s mental illness, but the struggles and pressures of creating great work that never sells must have impacted his psyche.
American Henry Darger (1894-1973) made his living as a janitor in Chicago. Still, he was also a writer and artist who is now best-known for his drawings, fantasy literature, and watercolor paintings. During his lifetime, his several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings did not get the attention they truly deserved. This reclusive artist was self-taught, and his contemporary “outsider” style wasn’t appreciated or recognized during his lifetime. Only when he was on his deathbed in the very same hospital where in father had died
was Darger’s work discovered by his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, who saw to it that Darger’s work would be recognized in noteworthy museums throughout the world. They also founded Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, where they opened its permanent exhibit of the Henry Darger Room Collection, an installation that recreates the small northside Chicago apartment where Darger lived and made his art. Then of course there was
Claude Monet might have been the key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed French painting in the second half of the 19th century, but his unique style and philosophy were neither liked nor understood. His works were rejected by society and art exhibitions because they went against the traditional style and method of painting of the time. Like Van Gogh, during his lifetime, Gauguin was an outsider and never received
widespread critical acclaim for his works. He turned down a prosperous life as a stockbroker to live a solitary existence in the South Pacific but he never found the idealized paradise he had sought out, nor the success that he so desired as an artist. Last on my list is Toulouse-Lautrec, who suffered from pycnodysostosis, a genetic disease that caused his brittle bones, as well as abnormalities of the face, hands, and other parts of the body, and his short legs that ceased to grow after they were broken as a youngster. In his short life from 1864 to 1901, he painted ground-breaking artwork during the Post-Impressionist movement but didn’t receive any recognition for his work during his brief lifetime. Perhaps one reason that he remained unnoticed was that he lived in brothels where he painted prostitutes who accepted him with all of his deformities.
I’m certain that there are more than a few other stories like these about artists who only received recognition beyond the grave, and many other stories that may never be told by those who died longing, yet never having discovered their artistic talents.
My husband and I have both had the good fortune to taste the pleasure of making art or writing artfully with the encouragement of colleagues, friends, and family, and at least some acknowledgment. For this, we are most grateful.
If you have an interest in art or perhaps you yourself are a budding artist, I would love to see some of your favorites ad any artistic project you are currently working on.