Sunday, July 31, 2011

Day 6: At The Getty

One rainy morning in 1777, a fifty year old man walked into the parlor of a lush, opulent, and one might daresay stately home in Chesterfield.  It had been a long, rainy journey from London and the man worried about a slight tickle that was gnawing at the back of his throat, developing into a sniffle.  He began to set up his canvas.

The Count walked bruskly into the room with a train of men, functionaries of the Royal Society (the so-called "Invisible College") precariously holding stacks of papers in their arms, one or two trying to direct the Count's attention to the matter they found important.  The Count's eyes locked onto the painter and said, "Ah, so you made it through the deluge, Gainsborough.  Very good.  You're early.  Anne shall be down when she's finished with her morning prayers."

Thomas did not look up from his work.  He lifted the nine foot tall canvas and placed it between two grips which he tightened.  "I thank you, sir.  I shall be ready."

The Count cleared his throat and continued out of the room, his retinue in tow.

Thomas thought briefly about Johann Christian, the composer's son, whose portrait he'd recently completed. Such a warm and intelligent man, so earnest and devout, salt of the Earth.  He thought of Mary and dear Margaret so patiently posing for him with his gamble, his promise to them that once he was satisfied with his exhibit for the Royal Academy they would all quit the city and their life with galling deference to the vapid upper-classes.  No more of setting ruddy old tool merchant's children posing in lavish blue suits for a few week's worth of rent and pub money.  They would retire to the country, buy a modest cottage.  Thomas thought of that dip in the road, about 20 miles south on his way up, that fell into a dark, wooded valley, with mottled sunlight speckling the dark brown, moist leaves.  For the rest of his life, he would remember whenever life became difficult that that place existed somewhere.

In July of 2011, Paul Mathers walked into a room in an art gallery in Los Angeles and saw the Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield by Thomas Gainsborough.  His first thought on reading the plaque was of a verse from a Noël Coward song about the stately homes of England and their tendency to house portraits by Gainsborough.  He also thought of how this was painted when his nation was but a fledgling making it's first unsteady trip out of the nest and how Gainsborough, as a patriotic Englishman (with somewhat of an American view towards social class), probably did not have a favorable view of the colonists revolting for tax purposes.  He also thought that where he was standing was Junipero Serra country in those days, almost as far removed from all of that as Paul Mathers in 2011.

The plaque mentioned Gainsborough's frustration with his great and immediately recognized talent for portraiture and his desire for a pastoral life of painting pastoral scenes.  Paul thought of poor Franz Schubert who thought his great talent was as an operatic composer but, indeed, was actually in everything but that.  He thought of J. Paul Getty's own description of art collectors as those who have all of the eye and love of beauty of an artist, but lack the skill to create their own artwork.  And, indeed, Paul thought of Paul.

He sat in front of the grand canvas on the sort of round red ottoman provided by the museum in the middle of each of their major rooms.  He found it to be stunningly beautiful, the fast dashes of oil resolving into a gorgeous portrait of a graceful young lady when one stood a good six feet away from it.  He wondered about the young lady in the portrait, a hint of mad, instant love tugging at his heart, and resolved to see if he could find any biographical information on the subject, perhaps for a blog entry.  He thought about his life, wondered what it's going to amount to in the end.  A group of five young college students walked into the room and stood between him and the canvas, blocking his view.

Laurie and I took far too many pictures at the Getty Center to post here, but I did make a photo album of them on Facebook.  You can find it here:

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