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No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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In the fall 2017 season, the National Gallery in London mounted a show entitled “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael around 1500.” Here were three of the greatest artists of any period, with several masterpieces on display, and each work breathtaking and all tied nimbly together. The point was to illustrate a moderate argument — namely that Michelangelo learned from Leonardo about capturing the expressive relation between the Madonna and the Infant — but more importantly, the show made clear what genius and skill can achieve.

The seven works included one marble sculpture by Michelangelo, the “Taddei Tondo” (ca. 1504-1505); one drawing by Leonardo, the “Burlington House Cartoon” (ca. 1499-1500); and five paintings in oil or tempera. These latter were depictions of the Madonna and Child, four of which included John the Baptist, and one exception, Raphael’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (ca. 1507). Chief among the Madonnas were the drawing, Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (ca. 1491-1499 and 1506-1508), and Michelangelo’s unfinished “Manchester Madonna” (ca. 1497). The three Raphaels included his “Ansidei Madonna” (1505), the “Madonna of the Pinks” (1507), and “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” the only one without the Madonna. The spirit of the exhibit was captured by the contrast between the three great names and the almost off-handed reference to “around 1500.” This conveys the notion that the works of monumental genius are ratified, as it were, by an approximate point of time. All artists, perhaps the greatest ones most of all, work and exist in time even as they shape and suffer that perfidious and relentless medium. Art history casts the net that helps — or nearly so — bring the issues into a knowable frame. More… “Masters and Madonnas”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).

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It is a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.
— René Magritte

We choose destinations for random and not-so-random reasons. Brussels interested me, but I probably wouldn’t have journeyed there if not for the art of René Magritte and the chance to see where he lived. It would be shorthand to say that I “love” Magritte’s work. I do, but he occupies a deeper part of my psyche. He’s a sort of uncle who offers artistic advice by example. Magritte never dies; he just goes on smoking the pipe that is not a pipe. More… “Magritte’s 3.5-Room Apartment”

Marian Calabro is the author of The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin) and 20 other nonfiction books, including several business histories. She leads creative writing workshops at the Adult School of Montclair (NJ) and in other adult-education settings. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and her plays have been produced at community theaters in the New York metro area. She lives and works in New Jersey.

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In Dark Ladies & Other Avatars, her debut poetry collection, Joan Roberta Ryan pays exquisite attention to seeing, eating, feeling, reflecting, and remembering — acts of attention that define what it means to live fully and well. Lit up by sparkling specificity and wit, these beautifully crafted, mostly free verse poems focus on both lovely things and disturbing things. Ryan’s subjects range from contemplations of literature and art, to heart-breaking poems about a sister’s mental illness, to appreciations of family members and their prized possessions. Most touchingly of all, the poet writes of long-married love and the art of domestic life. Ryan’s language is erudite, but her poems are never obscure. Even when she deploys unusual words, such as “akathisia” (a movement disorder) and “anosmia” (loss of the sense of smell), she does in the service of exactitude; readers get to increase their vocabularies in the bargain. Ryan incorporates subtle half-rhymes and enlivening tonal changes. She writes smart poems with heart. More… “The Dark Lady Ryan”

Lynn Levin teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her published works include four collections of poems, the latest of which is Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013). She is co-author of the craft of poetry book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013) and the translator, from the Spanish, of Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a collection of poems by the Peruvian poet Odi Gonzales.

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Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) is known, if known at all, as a quiet, conservative painter — a portraitist of the wealthy and well connected in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Neglected for most of the last century, she has received a modicum of recognition in recent years, with a number of monographs and a comprehensive exhibition of her work in 2007-2008. Contemporary critics have characterized her, much as those of her own day did, as a very good painter, technically proficient, and dedicated to her art.

But this assessment doesn’t begin to do her justice. It seems time for Beaux to be viewed afresh, not just revived. For she is more than a conventional realist, more than a realist with Impressionist tendencies, more even than a portraitist. She is, I would argue, a great original, for whom labels of school, method, and genre fall short. She deserves comparison with her great predecessor, Édouard Manet. Manet was brash and revolutionary; Beaux, restrained and insinuating — but she repays attention with insights as profound. More… “Beaux Monde”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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And the Lord God formed man . . . and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.
— Genesis 2:7

The world is beautiful before it is true.
— Gaston Bachelard

The theory of art developed in the Renaissance was intended to aid the artist in coming to terms with reality on an observational basis.
— Erwin Panofsky

Tell me! Is your universe awakening or going to sleep?
— John Hultberg

Cosmologists tell us that the temperature of space is two point seven Celsius above absolute zero. Certainly, many of Hultberg’s works, such as Twilight: Down The Drain and Dark Egypt, have icy light blue or very cold, dark blue skies. Demon Cloud, more demon angel than cloud, is certainly an exception with its infrared emissions glowing with the hot radiance of an unexplained fog of ions, or charged particles, over an accumulation of detritus. At right is a geometric plane with double circles, and at left is an easel-like speaker stand, both linked together by a single, cool, azure color. The demon cloud/angel, with its flurry of elegant brushstrokes that meld into the terrain, hovers over a landscape of tachist openings (and closings?) like dark kinetic energy escaping the gravitational field of earth. With his extraordinarily unique use of perspective, Hultberg expands his art into something more spatial, more astronomical, more cosmic. More… “The Art of John Hultberg”

Martin Ries, emeritus professor of art and art history at Long Island University, is an artist who studied at the Corcoran Art School and American University in Washington, D.C. He has exhibited his artwork in this country and abroad. In New York he studied art history at Hunter College with Leo Steinberg, William Rubin, and Ad Reinhardt.

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They kindly replied to my enquiry, but asked for my understanding that the design of a pill — including its shape and color — is based on proprietary marketing considerations. For this reason, they cannot tell me more about why the color blue was chosen. For Viagra. How could I have dared to think that Pfizer would have the answer I was hoping for? And this reply didn’t exactly encourage me to ask the company a second serious question: Why do some people see everything tainted in blue (cyanopsia) as a side effect of taking the drug? In any case, I guess the pill wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t this particular shade. More… “Encyclopedia Blue”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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The Metropolitan Museum Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue (the former site of the Whitney Museum now relocated to hip new quarters downtown) currently features an exhibition that seems perfectly suited to an outpost of the Met. What should an outpost do, after all, if not reframe and critique the masterworks of the established space? The exhibition now on display, entitled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, does this with intelligence and panache.

More… “Non Finito”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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Georgia O’Keeffe was notoriously private about her artmaking. “I can never bear to have people around me when I’m working,” she told The New Yorker, “or to let anybody see what I’m doing or say anything about it until it’s finished.” She was never eager to say much about her aesthetic ideas, either.

So the opportunity to consider the form and technique of O’Keeffe’s art — rather than its postcard-perfect content or manufactured meanings — was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Two back-to-back museum exhibits in Santa Fe, overlapping for one weekend.

Together, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Process” at the New Mexico Museum of Art and “Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color, Composition” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gathered more than 90 of her works, ranging from her earliest family portraits to her last, lustrous watercolors.

When she was a young girl, not even a teenager, O’Keeffe declared that she would grow up to be an artist. Today, she has become such a fixture of American popular culture — as self-made woman and New Mexico icon — that it’s easy to forget: first and foremost, Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist.
More… “Line, Color, Composition”

Ann Daly, PhD (AnnDalyWriter.com) is an essayist specializing in women and women’s history. She is the author of six books, including Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. She is currently working on a book about Georgia O’Keeffe.

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Norman Rockwell’s depiction of a bustling small-town journalism office (a nearly extinct species) is being sold by its owner, the National Press Club. More than half a century after the painting was donated by the artist, the organization has decided to sell it in order to fund future endeavors. Oh, the irony. (Washington Post)

In the wake of the 11th mass shooting since President Obama took office, officials and media near Umpqua Community College and across the country have abstained from naming the shooter unless absolutely necessary. Their hope: If his name doesn’t go down in infamy, maybe other would-be copycats won’t follow in his footsteps. (The Christian Science Monitor)

Try to think about yourself in four dimensions. What form does your path through space-time take? The answer may take you all the way to the source of human consciousness. (Nautilus) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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