I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
Having no artistic talent whatsoever myself, nonetheless I am fascinated by art, and especially by artists themselves. My father has been both an artist and an avid collector since the ship he served on as a Navy dentist docked in Sicily, and the local artists were allowed to come aboard to sell their wares. He still has paintings he bought in 1945 hanging on his walls. As a teenager in Depression era Chicago, he took classes on Saturdays at the Chicago Art Institute and wanted to become a portrait artist when he grew up. His father, my grandfather, told him to get real and learn a trade. He chose dentistry, and only later, after going to medical school, discovered that as a plastic surgeon, he could both be a portrait artist and earn a living.
Many of my artist friends do not take commissions. When asked why, they say that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile their own interpretation of a subject with that of the person commissioning the work. Fortunately for me however, some do, and I have been the appreciative beneficiary of portrait work by artists such as Stephanie Snell, Paul Doyle and Marilyn Terry. What do these artists paint? They paint my dogs of course. My children and I would never be able to focus and sit still for our own portraits to be painted and besides, despite this age of “selfies”, we are far too self conscious.
A few years ago, a young man’s wife developed breast cancer at age 25. He is a well-known video artist known as Daarken and he and his wife needed money to meet their medical expenses. An on-line fund raising auction was conceived, with the theme stated as “Beautiful Grim.” Beautiful, because despite his young wife’s diagnosis and treatment, she was and always will be beautiful– yet for some young women with breast cancer, the prognosis can be grim indeed. His friends and fellow artists rallied to the cause, and many contributed original works to the auction. I am a friend of Daarken’s sister, and I followed the auction with interest. In particular there was one painting that I kept coming back to, that no one was bidding on. It was a portrait of an African American woman, beautiful and naked, except for her long stockings which were peppermint striped, red and white. Her hair was a tangled wild mass of curls against her beautiful skin. When no one else bid, the portrait was mine.
Over the years I have become very friendly with the artist and his wife, who shall be unnamed because of the personal nature of this anecdote. They visited our home this past summer, and we commissioned a work of art. The assignment was intentionally vague—“just paint something you see in New Mexico that inspires you.” A few weeks ago the painting arrived, a full 4’ X 4’ landscape entitled “Sombrillo Vista.” It is as beautiful as I had hoped, and emblematic of the New Mexico I have come to love.
When I called to offer my sincere gratitude, the artist’s wife said, “You know, just after he finished your painting he received another commission—a most unusual one! A man called and said he wanted a portrait painted of his ex-wife. He is still in love with her and wants an oil painting to remember her by.” Apparently he had sent a few snapshots of his ex along with his request. Always a romantic at heart, this struck me as both somewhat insane, but also a true romantic gesture. I said, “Send me a phone pic of the work in progress. I want to see the woman who inspired this act of unrequited love.” She did. The woman was indeed beautiful, and playful, and mysterious all at the same time. I said, “Well if the ex-husband doesn’t like the portrait, let me know because I will buy it.”
Shortly after our conversation, a photo of the unfinished work was sent to the hopeful ex-husband. He liked it a lot, but he felt that it was not quite there yet. He had some advice for the artist– he said, “Just think—complex and Mona Lisa eyes with a dash of mischief and you’ll nail it!” I laughed and said, “Now that should be simple. You know, just be Leonardo da Vinci.” The finished portrait was unveiled to the good patron last week who promptly proclaimed, “It gave me goosebumps!” The man likely needs a good therapist instead of a portrait of his ex. But let us be clear: he has been faithful to her, in his fashion. And my artist friend, well—clearly, he NAILED it!