Art and Death

Art, for me, has always been two things. At its worst it is purely decorative (which, all things considered, isn’t so bad). At its best though I believe art is as close as a person can get to touching the divine. I don’t think we can understand god in any meaningful sense. Our brains simply aren’t capable. I use the example of my dog and mathematics. She gets two treats when we come home, but sometimes when we’re running low I give her one. She can clearly count to two, she follows me around the house wondering where the second one is. She is probably really proud of the fact that she can count to two. On the other hand she can’t do algebra or calculus and I doubt she is aware of the fact. For me, a human being’s understanding of god is like my dog counting to two. The reality is infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. The feeling of love (for lack of a better word) that comes with strong inspiration is, to me, as close as we will ever get. The surge of emotion a painter feels observing light on a withered old man, a beautiful young woman, or a Fiat Panda is us getting a small inkling of the vast beauty and power of what must be the divine.

With all of the metaphysical questions one deals with when confronted with the death of a loved one, my belief that my wife has gone somewhere which has something to do with this feeling gives me solace.

Art, for me, has never been a form of communication. Other artists I’ve spoken to find this strange. They say that is the main reason they create. I’ve just never seen it that way. I paint what I love, the world be damned. So it was interesting to me to see how communicative I found the art of others to be when mourning the death of my young wife.

These days people turn to online forums, therapy, counseling, and anti-depressants to deal with grief. Being the first of my friends to deal with a situation like this, I wasn’t really aware of the options and I looked to more traditional methods.

People say alcohol can be a crutch, I used it more like a wheelchair that first month. Even though being a functioning alcoholic in my profession is acceptable, if not encouraged, the problem with alcohol and grief is that the booze knocks the teeth out of the serotonin levels in your brain and the next day is much worse. Or so they say. The truth is that at least you feel o.k. part of the time. The real problem with alcohol for me is that it negatively affects my work. I think you could get away with being an alcoholic as a portraitist, but not as a landscape painter. The mornings are too important. Either way, I’ve toned it down lately.

I’m very thankful to have a fantastic set of friends. Both here in Florence and elsewhere around the world. It’s said your address book changes after the death of a spouse but my experience has been exactly the opposite. A few times I’ve had to hide from the concern, just to have a moment alone.

At the end of the day though, I found most of my consolation in art: Literature, music, sculpture and paintings.

When I was a kid I had to memorize the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It has always stuck with me. On one of my first nights alone in Florence we had one of our rare snows in the Mediterranean, I wondered if it was snowing on my wife’s grave across the Adriatic when I thought of the story. Poor Michael Furey, dead at 17, half my wife’s age.

Music is a wonderfully empathetic art form. I preferred the songs by widowers such as Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens, Blue Orchids and Katy Song by Mark Kozelek. Songs that don’t make any sense were, bizarrely, also of comfort. Songs like The Gardener by The Tallest Man on Earth, or Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (the Italian version).
There isn’t any sense to be made in the death of such a vibrant young woman.

Many painters have since written to me about their own loss of a loved one. At the beginning though I knew only of past artists who had lost wives and the art they left in their memory. I can’t say it made me feel better, but it did make me feel less alone.

Frank Duveneck was an American painter living in Florence in the 1880s. His wife, Elizabeth Boott, was the inspiration for Pansy Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (you can read more on their romance here).  They had also been married for three years when she passed away. He worked with a sculptor to create a monument for her. The original is here in the Allori cemetery in Florence. The monument was considered so beautiful that copies were made for the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. They ask you not to take pictures in the Allori cemetery, but here is a photoof the Met version. I’ve visited the Allori version a couple of times recently and found it very moving.

lizzy boott Art and Death

Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Frank Duveneck.

Arnold Böcklin was another foreign painter living in Florence. He was commissioned by a widow to paint an image of grief. The result is the Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) and he painted five versions (Serge Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem with the same name after seeing it). The image is based on the cemetery in Piazza Donatello where his four year old daughter, Maria Anna, is buried. My studio looks onto the cemetery, but in the 12 years I’ve been there I had never been inside until now. I looked to see if he had done a monument for his daughter but it was stolen earlier in the century when the cemetery was abandoned.

isle of the dead Art and Death

Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel). Arnold Böcklin.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau buried four of his five children and a young wife. He painted his Pietà in after losing his 16-year-old son in 1876. For a man who must have suffered so much in his life, I find his work strangely lacking in emotion.

pieta Art and Death

Pietà. William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Claude Monet’s wife Camille died at 32. He was 38 and penniless, like me. I read that he blamed his poverty for Camille’s death, and it was part of the reason he focused on becoming so rich later in life. While I believe Alba was failed miserably by her doctors, I don’t know if more money would have necessarily saved her. By the time we knew what she had there wasn’t much that could have been done. Monet painted Camille on her deathbed, and kept it in his bedroom for the rest of his life as one of his most prized possessions.

camille monet Art and Death

Camille Monet on her Deathbed. Claude Monet.

I haven’t painted for the last 6 months, which is also why I haven’t had anything to blog about. I did a sculpture of Alba and another of our dog which will be re-cut in marble for her grave. I’ll post pictures when it’s finished.

From my talks with other artists, it seems that not being able to work is a normal reaction. It hasn’t really been my season anyways. I hope to hit the ground running in May when I have painting trips planned to Montalcino and the Val d’Arbia.