Monday, May 31

Maids of honor welcome guest of honor

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. John Singer Sargent, 1882.
Oil on canvas (87.6 in x 87.6 in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Prado Museum in Madrid has taken what strikes me as a unique and original initiative that I have been able to enjoy on several recent visits: “a guest painting”. The invited painting in question is one many of you may be familiar with, John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, shown above (as with all photos on this blog, you can click to enlarge).

Sargent’s group portrait of the four Boit sisters is normally on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is flanked on either side by the original Japanese porcelain vases depicted in the painting. The heirs donated the vases to the museum some years after the painting, and having these silent sentinels on either side of the Sargent masterpiece serves to further draw the viewer into the curious atmosphere created in the work.

The painting rarely, if ever, leaves the museum in Boston and the reason it has done so now is that the Prado has “invited” the daughters for a stay in the company of another young lady, the Infanta Margarita, and her entourage, as depicted in what is regarded as the preeminent work in the fabulous Prado Museum and arguably one of the most important paintings in art history: Diego Velazquez’s 1656 masterpiece Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). There are better places than this blog to learn about Las Meninas. One place to start is at the smarthistory page for a discussion.

Las Meninas. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, 1656.
Oil on canvas (125.2 in × 108.7 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Perhaps on another post, I will have more to say on that seminal masterwork, but today I will concentrate on Sargent’s beautiful and gently unsettling Daughters. Unsettling? Yes, or at least it was perceived that way when first done in 1882. Although praised from the very first as a beautiful work, compositionally it did break a number of rules and caused quite a stir. For one, apart from being very large for a portrait, the canvas is a perfect square, a more unusual format than one might suspect. More importantly, the use of space also sets it apart from most portraiture. One critic called it “four corners and a void”. There is something mysterious and disquieting about the sisters' isolation from each other, with the spatial separation being heightened by the lack of any interaction between them.

Only the youngest of the Boit girls actively engages the painter/viewer. Some commentators have suggested it is a visual essay on the passage through and out of childhood. Instead of a standard group portrait of the four sisters, Sargent’s rendering seems to give us a psychological study, with the girls representing successive phases of alienation, of drawing inward. From Julia (4) sitting on the floor, to Mary Louisa (8) standing on the left, and Jane (12) and Florence (14) behind them, the older they get, the less illuminated and progressively more withdrawn they become.
Henry James. John Singer Sargent, 1913.
Oil on canvas (85.1 x 67.3 in.)
National Portrait Gallery, London.

Edward Darley Boit was a lawyer by training who, thanks to his wealthy wife's inheritance, was able to indulge his passion for painting watercolors. He developed a fairly close friendship with Sargent. Certainly, one of the things the two men had in common, in addition to painting, was a bit of a nomadic lifestyle. Boit was born in Boston but spent long periods of his life in Europe. Sargent was born in Florence of American parents and lived most of his life in Europe, mainly in France and England. A good friend of the two men was another ex-pat, the novelist Henry James, who described Sargent as having a "knock-down insolence of talent". Indeed, James played a pivotal role in introducing the then unknown Sargent to the American public on the eve of his very first visit to America in 1877 (at the age of 21). For more on Sargent, I recommend the fine John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. He has also been written about on a blog I enjoy following, Art Blog by Bob.

In the Boit family so given over to wanderlust, and painted by an artist whom a close friend once described as an "accentless mongrel" for his rootlessness, perhaps the most stable elements depicted in the Boit home were the vases. Curiously, the 6-foot vases travelled with the family, back and forth between continents, making a total of 16 transatlantic crossings. I think the spatial arrangement of the composition certainly would not have worked without the weight and grounding they bring to the atmosphere. As in the painting, perhaps in real life, too, the vases became a symbol of home for the Boit sisters. I love the way the one on the left bellies out side by side with Florence, suggesting more than accentuating the coming curves of womanhood.

And in case you are wondering, they were not empty when received by the Museum of Fine Arts. Erica Hirshler is senior curator of paintings, art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has written a book about this painting, titled Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009). In the book, Hirshler reports that the contents of the vases were "a document of mischief and the passage of time", and included, stuffed in amongst the packing material, "a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass., three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins and a feather". Geography lessons, indeed.

So why this rendezvous of four Bostonian sisters and a Spanish royal?  The simple reason is that Sargent's Daughters was inspired by Las Meninas. Few of Velázquez's works are located outside Spain. Most, in fact, are in the Prado. So to see the master's inspired portraits and court scenes, Sargent, like so many other painters, made the pilgrimage to Madrid to see the paintings of the great Spanish court painter of the 17th century. He was well familiar with Velázquez's work prior to that visit, however, because his teacher, the French painter Carolus-Duran, was devoted to the Seville artist's work and had made several copies of his paintings. One of the treats of the Daughters current stay at the Prado is that displayed alongside the two paintings is the handwritten log of artists allowed to copy works in the museum. The book is turned open to a page with several entries for visits by Sargent. The one for the Las Meninas is dated 14 November 1879, although for some unexplained reason he was "logged in" as Gustavo S. Sargent.

And one last curious note: For the occasion, Las Meninas has been moved from its usual privileged location in the Prado —the large octagonal hall 12 (now under alterations), where it is very well situated for both closeup and far-off contemplation— to a much less advantageous viewing spot on the side-wall of a long corridor. In what strikes my overly fanciful mind as a token of the kind of hospitality that makes Madrid such a warm and inviting city, Sargent's Daughters have been given the best viewing position in the temporary new layout. To me there was something touching in this gesture, as remarkable as if the Spanish King himself were to go to the airport to greet a visiting dignitary. I’d like to think that John Singer Sargent would be touched and humbled.

Maids of Honor and Daughters on view at Prado. Photo: Andres Valentin, Prado.

Before I close with the video embedded below, in which you can hear Erica Hirshler discuss some aspects of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I wonder what similarities do you see between Sargent's Daughters and the Meninas that inspired him? The chromatic range? Treatment of light and space? The sense of capturing a fleeting moment in time, more than of making a timeless portrait? Though quite common now, this certainly was not the case when Velázquez made his painting in the 17th century, long before the advent of photography.

I suggest you set the video to 720p high definition and full screen:

Thursday, May 27

I'm starting to get tea-ed off...

Dear Mr. Henry,
No, our school has no policy for or against gun control, and absolutely no position on the “tea party” movement, and, yes, we know the ammunition had been removed, but we simply cannot allow little Patrick to bring automatic weapons to “show and tell”.
Sincerely yours,
James Brady
Principal, Horniman Elementary School
* * *

This is a flash fiction piece for '55 Flash Fiction Friday'. The idea is to tell a story in 55 words. Try one yourself and then go tell g-man about it.

Tuesday, May 25


Photo by Keith Carter
This week the erstwhile driver of the Poetry Bus, TFE, of The People's Lost Republic of EEjit, has turned bus driving duties over to dear blog friend Terresa, of The Chocolate Chip Waffle. Terresa has posted  this picture prompt, an intriguing photo from photographer Keith Carter, whose website you may visit by clicking on the photo caption ... but please not before reading my humble, moon-besotted offering below.

I float in drops of onyx dew
spied by cherubs
maundering from warped walls
pink petals twitch on laurelled brows

in the abiding eclipse
her rose fingers clasp the torch
and in the streaming silence
light an ember in the stygian night

she guides the chariot that pulls me
from the deep ink of sleep
and dissolves the clouded dreams
that ride her golden cape

Friday, May 21

Bearing witness for karma

All night? He made love to you the entire night?


– A man with prostate cancer?

– He did stop to pee.

– And the fact the insurance company’s office was firebombed the same night the accused learned his coverage was denied, you just call that a coincidence?

– No, I call it karma. Instant karma.

* * *

Click to enlarge. Photo: PoiPoi — Bogdan Pedovich
Legal disclaimer: This is a fictional piece for '55 Flash Fiction Friday', where participants are required to tell a story in 55 words. The Alchemist's Pillow neither engages in, advocates nor condones perjury, arson or inopportune pee breaks and disclaims all liability for any such acts. All claims or queries should be addressed to g-man.

Post-edit: I have been affectionately pestered by threats of a paternity suit, something or other about a daughter of memory muse. I deny everything, but am linking this post to the 10th Daugther of Memory site.

Wednesday, May 19

A marketable name with a whiff of danger ...

Photo by Marjorie Zaum K.
Today, May 19th, is the birthday of Ho Chi Minh, born in 1890. I was not really planning a commemoration of his birthday, but this morning while reading Garrison Keillor's always rewarding The Writer's Almanac, I collided with this stunning paragraph:
"The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail was the route along which the North Vietnamese government ran supplies for the Viet Cong guerillas in the South, and it has become a series of golf courses, the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, geared toward tourists."
A series of golf courses? As a child of the 1960s (born in '56), this has just left me dumbfounded. Is this what it was all about? The B-52 bombings, the napalm, the revolutions and killing fields? Is this what it was all about? Will the ghosts of fifty thousand plus US soldiers and untold millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians be teeing off together on the 18th hole? Did McNamara shout “Fore!” before releasing the bombs? Are the Pentagon Papers and Mao's little red book on sale at the golf shop in the clubhouse?

Ho Chi Minh Golf Tral
There is actually a website for the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, with the catchy slogan: "The man, the trail, the golf adventure of a lifetime". I include the link, not so much for you to visit the site as to assure you that I am not making this up. The page proudly displays a quote from a review run in Golf magazine in February 2009: "Vietnam, once synonymous with bloodshed, is remaking itself as a golf destination, complete with luxury hotels, A-list course designers and a marketable name with a whiff of danger: The Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail."

I close with a video clip of Adrian Mitchell reading his powerful poem "To Whom It May Concern" at the International Poetry Incarnation in Royal Albert Hall, London (1965, when golf was not yet a tourist attraction in Southeast Asia). I first saw it at The People's Lost Republic of EEjit site, where it was posted by TFE as part of the poetry bus series. TFE apparently first saw it on Rachel Fox's blog. Thanks to both:

Tuesday, May 18

Booked through Fall, stealing away in Spring ...

Click below to hear Hank Jones and Charlie Haden playing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".

Piano great Hank Jones has just passed on at the ripe age of 91. It is normally supposed to be 'ripe old age', but anyone who has had the good fortune to see Hank Jones' piano playing of late would surely agree he was 'old' only in musical wisdom, wistful melodic wit and depth of soul.

I will not go into details on the life and long professional career (nearly eight decades from the age of 13!) of this legendary jazz man. For a 'proper' obituary and remembrance you can go read Peter Keepnews at the New York Times or Patrick Jarenwattananon at A Blog Supreme / NPR Jazz, with plenty of worthwhile links. And more will surely follow.

Hank Jones played with a nearly endless list of jazz luminaries: Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane... In the last few decades he continued to develop and blossomed as a leader in his own right, while remaining one of the most sought after pianists demanded by the top names in jazz. He has backed vocalists from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Diana Krall and many, many more. Though set to celebrate his 92nd birthday on July 31, he remained incredibly active; the NY Times obituary reports his schedule was booked full through Fall.

But Hank has now slipped off to join his brother Elvin Jones, the great drummer forever associated with John Coltrane and leader of his own combos, and Thad Jones, trumpeter, composer, arranger and co-founder/leader of the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jones big band. Some serious soulful swinging at the pearly gates tonight.

Curious piece of jazz trivia: If you think you have never heard Hank Jones playing the piano, you are probably mistaken — Hank Jones was the pianist who backed Marilyn Monroe in her highly celebrated steamy rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" sung for JFK at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

I close with a photo, not of Marilyn, but of a gorgeous soul and beautiful, dearly appreciated musician, Hank Jones, taken last summer in Spain at the San Sebastián Jazz Festival.

Hank Jones in San Sebastián, July 2009. Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images
Musical credits. The piece "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is from the album “Steal Away — Spiritual, Hymns and Folk Songs”, with Hank Jones on piano and Charlie Haden playing bass. Recorded in 1994 on Verve Records – Polydor.

Friday, May 14

55 Flash Fiction Friday


Hi, Sue.
It’s you isn’t it?


Been at least 6, 7 years?

11 and a half.

This is so amazing I could find you!!



Robert, I’m still in the same house where we lived.


Sue is off-line

* * *
This is a flash fiction piece for '55 Flash Fiction Friday'. The idea is to tell a story in 55 words with at least one character and a discernible plot. My first stab at this. For more, go see g-man.

Tuesday, May 11

Magpie Tales 13

This week's writing prompt for Magpie Tales was the foreboding eye shown here to the left. Magpie Tales is a blog begun by willow of Life at Willow Manor, dedicated, in her words, "to the enjoyment of writers, for the purpose of honing their craft, sharing it with like minded bloggers, and keeping their muses alive and well".

Never to rest or know the peace of sleep,
salt night with tears or bathe in tidal dreams;
damned to see all and to by all be seen,
naked and alone, great Eye in heaven.

Frightened outcast forever left behind
by prayer periscope of nursery rhymes;
on what lost orbit and by what bent lens,
did the scared dyslex into the sacred?

Perched atop a pyramid, we all fell
at his feet in praise of the all-seeing eye.
Cyclops banished Apollo and mighty
Zeus himself from the gouged unblinking sky.

Petrified stare of a lonely tyrant
never cradled in a child’s honeyed gaze;
what stern unflinching prison stone is this
for the sensual orb of human bliss?

Fling the chimeless bell in the fire and flee
from the flames! Hurl him at the sun, follow
his arc through clouds blown across the valley,
restore him to the earth’s tender hollow

where mossy lids will bring moist balm to soothe
the weary king, so the ancient chorus
may race chariots in the blinding wind
while he learns the sweetness of slumber. For

when the thorns were thrust down upon his brow,
even Jesus veiled his eyes in tears and worked
his greatest miracle in a bouldered cave
hidden away, unseen, unseeing, returned.

And, now, I encourage you, without batting an eye, to go see what other magpie tales partcipants have offered us this week.

Monday, May 10

Soul on soul ... the Mary Lou Williams Centennial

W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures
Today I wanted to make at least a brief mention of the 100th birthday of jazz great Mary Lou Williams, born one fine Spring morning on May 8, 1910. The NPR jazz site, "A Blog Supreme" is commemorating this singular pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator in a worthy tribute written by Patrick Jarenwattananon that you can find here.

Perhaps no other musician in the history of jazz can be so rightfully said as Mary Lou Williams to have spanned every major era of jazz and continued to evolve through them so richly, never becoming locked into any one style or period. From ragtime, boogie woogie, stride and blues piano to the swing era, onto bebop and through to post-bop and beyond, she continued to grow and flow with the music, her life, composing and playing becoming a lustrous and fecund compendium of jazz history. "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary" is how Duke Ellington described her permanent freshness and openness to the music's new currents. "Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career...  her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul" (Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress).

"I’m the only living musician that has played all the eras.” That was certainly not an idle boast she made in 1978, three years before her death, on the first-ever Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" radio show. To hear that delightful interview, master class and performance from the debut Piano Jazz series (still going strong today, 32 years later), visit the link at NPR here.

History of Jazz by Mary Lou Williams, 1979
Williams did not just play in and survive these different periods. She was a major presence and influence in all of them, although her importance was always felt more by her fellow musicians than by the general public. She turned professional in her early teens, playing stride piano to help support her 10 step-brothers and sisters. By the age of 15 she had already played with Duke Ellington in one of his earliest bands, the Washingtonians, and been noticed by and gigged with Louis Armstrong, before becoming composer, arranger and pianist in Andy Kirk's "Twelve Clouds of Joy". Soon her composing and arranging skills were much sought after by Ellington, Benny Goodman, Earth "Father" Hines, Jimmy Lunceford (for whom she wrote "What's your story morning glory?" in the 1930s) and other giants of the swing era.

Always in the right place at the right time, she moved to Harlem in the early 1940s and was a major albeit behind-the-scenes mover in the birth of bebop. Her apartment on Convent Avenue was the unofficial "bebop salon", where she was a friend, teacher and mentor to the pioneering bop pianists, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, who would stop by her place on a nearly daily basis, along with Charlie Parker (whom she had met back in Kansas City "when he was in knee pants"), Dizzy Gillespie, Errol Garner and a stellar list of luminaries of the "Harlem post-Renaissance" revolution.

In the 1950s, after converting to Catholicism, she retired from public performances and active career as musician to take up her spiritual pursuits and charitable work. Years later, Dizzy Gillespie and others convinced her to return to music. She drew on many of the elements from all those periods to pen some of her best known sacred works, including 'Mass for Peace' —which ever since Alvin Ailey choreographed it for a major work of his dance company has been known as 'Mary Lou's Mass'— and 'Black Christ of the Andes', from which I embed 'Praise the Lord' below...

Praise the lord, indeed. I have sometimes wondered if I had heard music like this in church as a child (I actually remember mass in Latin!), whether I would have ever departed the church for the shimmering stars of astronomy and the ambrosia clouds of Mount Olympus.

To hear two beautiful live 1970s performances by Mary Lou Williams, visit this link for the radio program JazzSet, hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

* * *
Painting of Lena Horne by Merryl Jaye, who has
a wonderful collection of jazz portraits at her site.
As I write this post about Mary Lou Williams, it is with sadness that I note the passing of Lena Horne. For an earlier post featuring the great lady of jazz, click here.

Wednesday, May 5

Child's play ...

(c) Szabolcs Sipos. Click on photo to enlarge. Click here to see at

Penplay echoes of playpen
The waters of our world know
nothing dries faster
… a child’s tears

Steeped in night, they ferment as dreams
sugared over on the morning pillow
… a child’s fears

Seeing his reflection in the clock
heart echoing the minute hand
… a child peers

When the robins from the nest have gone
there is no telling the songs
… a child hears

Compass awhirl in the before
softly unaware into the after
… a child steers

Blued secrets aching to be shared
are hushed now
… a child nears

Fleet hand of youth has gone missing
the clock a compass pointing to the churchyard from atop
… a child’s years

(c) Vitor Cid. Click on photo to enlarge. Click here to see at