Editor’s Note:

What follows is the second in Aeqai’s series, where we ask artists in Greater Cincinnati to select one work of art in the permanent collection of either CAM or the Taft Museum, and tell our readers why it is important to him or her.  Maureen Bloomfield is Editor of The Artist’s Magazine, as well as a nationally recognized poet and art critic.  We share one of her poems with her selection of a Whistler painting from the Taft Museum.  Next in this series, are sculptor Margot Gotoff; painter Kim Krause; draughtsman Dan Newman; printmaker Radha; and painter Emil Robinson.

If compelled to list my favorite painters, I never say “Whistler,” but in thinking of pieces I ritually visit, Whistlers are everywhere: at the Tate, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander; at the Frick, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink and Harmony in Pink and Grey; at the Met, The Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: the Portrait of Theodore Duret, and, and at the Taft, At the Piano. In contrast to those others, At the Piano has a horizontal format; by virtue of its expanded palette and the inclusion of two figures, it asserts a dialectic. A black mass is countered by a white mass, with the piano and music cases under the piano as a bridge. The younger figure assesses the other, who averts her gaze. The light is opulent though there is no evidence of a window. The music room is the world of the painting and it is enclosed. The Arrangements, Symphonies, Harmonies, and Nocturnes that will follow are studies in gradations of tone, but here, in this early work, Whistler is less guarded. Later he will adopt the butterfly as a monogram, but at the point of this painting, he is still signing his name in script.

Though the Salon rejected At the Piano, it found an appreciative audience at the Royal Academy. The painting may commemorate the death of Whistler’s father, who often played duets with Whistler’s sister Deborah, pictured here; the girl is Deborah’s daughter, the artist’s niece, Annie. A year or so later, Whistler would revisit this theme in the more characteristic vertical orientation, Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room (1860-61 now at the Freer Gallery). In that picture, the girl in the white dress is absorbed in a picture book; the standing mother, holding one glove, is about to depart. Harmony in Green and Rose has a festive, summery air, whereas At the Piano is grave, showing the extremes of value: dark and light.

In brilliant sequence, planes are varied and succeed one another. Of the pictures hung on the wall, we see only gilded frames whose white mats repeat the white of the dress and whose gold is echoed in the ornamented wainscoting, golden baseboard, and golden bowl. The ivory green swath of wall gives way to the wainscoting, to the baseboard, to the rug whose red, darkened, recurs in the piano and in the tapestry over the table. The piano separates the two figures but makes them one shape. Absent from the piano is music, whose white sheets would have further connected the mother and the daughter. The mother plays from memory. While the mother is defined, the daughter is inchoate. Her stance is relaxed; her crisscrossed shoes connect her visually to her mother, as do the mother’s fluttery hands that suggest the origin of the daughter’s antic grace.

In writing this essay, I remembered that my English grandfather died suddenly, just before I turned eight, in a room very like this one. At the center of my response may be a memory of grief, but more likely it is the situation of the two figures: opposite, interdependent, in balance. At the Piano is a still point, fully at home in its setting. The frame is gilded, like the frames within the picture; the wall it hangs on is a variation of the deep red of the rug. On the wall on the other side of the doorway is Sargent’s portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was, we remember, devoted to the nurse who took the place of his mother. And, of course, across the hall in the Taft, is an actual music room.

At the Piano asserts the beauty of stasis: a suspension between emotion and decorum. The child contemplates the mystery of mother and the specter of death; the mother contemplates the absence of the father and the future of the daughter, and what, in turn, do we see? That the world is beautiful and ordered. That an artist of prodigious gifts is lavish here but about to take an austere turn. That what Henry James called “the solace of art” is the only solace. That the only way to live is to live with art.

-Maureen Bloomfield

"At the Piano" (1858, oil on canvas)Crow Flies

Over the net of the sea
And over the battlefield
Her name is Badb
The plural is unlucky
But there were two, one recessive
The bold one cawing, on the ground
Under the oak sacred to druids

Her mate in the tree’s shadow, plucking the grass
Is my mother dead, I said?
Is my mother at last dying?
The tree of the dead bows low
Jewel weed and the tiny seed pod, the latter
Explodes on touch
In Parker Woods, in the forest primeval
What spirits lie

We journeyed to the farm
Where there were mountains of cinders
And signs that had been vandalized
When we finally got to a smattering of houses
The numbers on the mailboxes were awry
316, 381, 292—as if the inhabitants had plied
Each metal tin with a favorite number
Regardless of sequence

It was my birthday, I was 59, Reverse that,
The crow said, the crow kept calling
I regarded him, I called him corvus, the generic name
That does not take into account
His specific functions
Not all have to do with death

Inside the farm house that, in spite of
Fans everywhere, smelled of nicotine
There were signs signaling welcome,
Proclaiming the hosts’ names
And posters from 30s movies
And a Santa Claus head that was illumined
And seemingly at will started to sing or talk
The mode was unclear; the intent, not

Some assertion of desire, a message
In which content was subsidiary,
Like the crow’s call, insistent and then absent
As the day begins, the parking lot filling with cars
The families of geese roaming in squiggly lines
A promenade in search of food, I guess
Although different women come, like gleaners,
Only the opposite: they upend a sack of crumbs

And in the dark pit, where the water is opaque
Two catfish, with tar-colored whiskers,
Meander to the surface, their bulbous eyes seeming to regard me
As they take in water though they do not drown
Muddy water from which the lotus blooms
For two weeks only
A mouth, the ancients said, a doorway

-Maureen Bloomfield

6 Responses

  1. Maureen this was a treat to read– cogent and analytical while suffused with feeling. When you write, “On the wall on the other side of the doorway is Sargent’s portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was, we remember, devoted to the nurse who took the place of his mother,” I imagined this painting like that nurse, both surrogate for that which remains only in memory as well as a worthy object of devotion.

  2. Ut Pittura Poesis

    In this brilliant essay, Maureen Bloomfield marries the elegaic experience of her own mother’s death and her response to it as she describes the understated melancholy that pervades Whistler’s painting. All true art elicits an emotional response from the viewer, and Bloomfield has captured the frozen moment expressed by whistler, not only in her poem but in her astute visual analysis of the elements in the painting. What a joy to read and discover the many layers of meaning, symbolism and thought that can be discovered if one really takes the time to look, to ponder, and to express. This is an essay not to be forgotten but to be read again and again for its beauty, its structure and the grace and beauty in which it is written.

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