Sunday, December 10, 2006

O Rest in the Lord?

by Brenda Roger

It is 1890 in Philadelphia. You are a famous chanteuse. Night after night, people crowd the theater to hear you sing. Compliments come in many forms. Why even a local painter, of some significance, wishes to paint your portrait.

Over eighty times, you are laced into your corset. It is covered over by heavy carnation pink silk brocade. The finest European lace peaks out from the divided skirt. With your tiny feet nestled into pink silk slippers you take your stance in the third floor studio of a Philadelphia row house.

On the first of these occasions comes an unusual request. Can you sing “O Rest in the Lord” while you stand there. He wants to see your chest heaving and your vocal chords dance. You of all people understand suffering for the sake of art. You comply with his wishes. Over and over again, you sing at his request. Eventually, the song uses very little of your concentration and you are left to contemplate the man. The Painter.

More than once, he has asked you to disrobe so that he can study your figure. He interjects this request into unrelated conversations with increasing frequency. You cannot abandon the portrait until it is finished, unless you want to cause your self and your mutual friends a great embarrassment. Your discomfort festers.

The two of you are on the top of a house that is stacked with his family members. One is a strange young girl named Ella. She is a niece you are told. The poor thing has a disturbed look in her eyes. No not in her eyes, behind them. During a break from posing one day, you take pity on the girl and try to speak with her. She calmly informs you that she fully intends to shoot her uncle the painter, but adds that she will shoot you first.


Has your fellow blogger just shared her brilliant new idea for a suspense novel? Oh, no, no, it is just the story behind The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins. I couldn’t make it up on my best day.

The Concert Singer is currently on view as part of Off the Pedestal: The New Woman in the Art of Homer, Chase and Sargent, at the Frick Art & Historical Center. Any time one gets to see an Eakins in person, it is a gift from the universe. This time that is especially true for me because I have chosen this painting as the subject of my December 29th gallery talk. What a great excuse to spend hours dissecting new scholarship on a painter whose technique I deeply admire. In an effort to understand the painting and its creator, I have been devouring one of two new biographies on Thomas Eakins.

There are new biographies on artists all the time. New scholarship on Thomas Eakins is significant at this time because for many years, papers compiled by his early biographers have been purposely lost. As you may have guessed, the papers have recently surfaced and spawned a renewed interest in trying to sort out a most intriguing and sometimes disturbing character. The twists and turns have all the intrigue of a best seller or a blockbuster movie (Dan Brown, please don’t touch).

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Just in case I decide to write it myself! Of course, you could attend the gallery talk at 2 PM on December 29 at the Frick Art Museum. I promise it will be free and disturbing.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ack, Brenda, you tease!!! I want to know if the "niece" made good on her promise! I may just have to come to that talk of yours...

And, yes, you should definitely write that blockbuster!

mike said...

Brenda--What a wonderful story! I've admired Eakins for years...my last trip to Philly (so many years ago) was a pilgrimage to see a major showing of his work. Didn't know about the piece at the Frick tho, so thanks for the tip. And look for me in the audience on the 29th, a perfect way to spend my vacation day.

Meryl Neiman said...

How intriguing! Do you think I could bring kids to the gallery talk? Or is the tale too gory?

Tory said...

So, will you tell us how it all came out at the gallery talk?

Do we need reservations?

P.S. You ARE a tease!

Brenda Roger said...

no reservations neccessary for the gallery talk. ummm, NOT appropriate for kids. If there are kids in the audience, I will have to give the G rated version, which is MUCH less interesting.

I would be so flattered if any of my brilliant writer friends could make it.

Brenda Roger said...

Mike,

I'm so glad you like Eakins. Please get over there to see the painting. It will not disappoint you. The surface is alive and the frame has a surprise at the bottom.

Nancy said...

Who among us can resist? I think we need a field trip!

Joyce said...

Rats! I have to work that day. Maybe I could call off sick. I think I feel a cold coming on...

lisa curry said...

Coooo-ooool, Brenda! You've gotta write this story!

Tory said...

Count me in for the field trip. Now I'm in research, I have the week between Xmas and New Year's off!!! I've heard the restaurant there is pretty good, but never been. What do you think, Brenda? Will it be too crowded for words?

Tory said...

Hey, Brenda, do you want to do a blog on Christmas? Or would you rather we sent a general holiday greeting and you blogged the week after? (Sorry to do this here, but I can't seem to reach you!)

Kristine said...

What a story, Brenda! Wow!

Brenda Roger said...

Tory,

I posted a message about the xmas blog on yahoo. whatever the group wants to do is fine with me.

You can try a reservation at the Frick Cafe for that day. I suspect it will be booked for lunch, but tea starts in the afternoon, about 2:30. Perfect timing!

lisa curry said...

Hey, Brenda, have you ever read any Tracey Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, etc.)? I started reading her The Lady and the Unicorn last night (it's great -- kept me up past my bedtime, and I'm halfway through it already), and it made me think of this blog post of yours. She seems to be quite successful at writing novels based around works of art. If she can do it, so can you!