Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I was taught, one time, about the Hudson River School. It's not an actual school (I mean, there probably is one, but that's not the one I'm talking about), but the name for a group of American painters in the 1800s. Here's one of my favorite examples, Thomas Cole's Home in the Woods; click over to look at it and then come back. I'll wait.

The art history professor who taught me about the Hudson River School said this about the painters' use of perspective: you have the foreground, in which the small details take place, getting out of a canoe, having a picnic, taking a walk; then you have the middle ground, which is the setting for the small details, woods or a lake or a cottage in the distance or, more likely, all three; and then--and here, generations of academic inbreeding resonated out over his bow tie--you have the sublime. The Sublime took the form of distant mountains, or a spectacular cloud formation, or a lake, or, more often than not, all three.

We're living in our own small Hudson River School painting right now. In the foreground, we're telling people that we're coming (or going, depending on what time zone you're in) back to America. That's all detailed and sharply focused, like when I told Dahlia, one of my favorite English ladies, and she shook her head and then bent over her quilting stitches. Or when E and G told their friends at school yesterday, and Virginia spent the rest of the day saying, You can't leave me: people, moving about, talking to each other, sewing, eating, walking, thinking. Then there's the middle ground, where C and I are thinking about when to leave, and how to patch together the time in the States before our furniture arrives, and where to send the girls to school, and what color to paint the kitchen in our American house, and my finding work: a fairly dense forest, that part is, with occasional shafts of sunlight and suggestions of clearings but, still, not the kind of forest you just walk off into without at least a water bottle and a snack.

And then, there's the Sublime. I thought of that when I received an email from our friends over at Organizing for America. Its subject line was Your economic crisis. Well, our economic crisis is what's looming over the back of the painting, the range of snowy peaks under a cloudy sky. It's the backdrop, but it's also the reason the painting exists.

The story of this crisis, the email said, is in homes across the country -- homes where a family member has lost a job, where parents are struggling to pay a mortgage, and where college tuition has slipped out of reach.

Share your story about how this crisis is affecting you and your family.

I read it aloud to C. Do you think we should respond?

Dear Friends, I could write,

The economic crisis is forcing us to leave our home in the South of France, where we live in the middle of an olive grove and look out over the sea, to return to our center-hall Colonial house in the inner suburbs of the nation's capital. Please hurry and get the stimulus package passed so that we can begin the kitchen remodel.

Amitiés, Madame Marron.

It is, as my art history professor taught us, all about perspective.

1 comment:

  1. And I love YOUR perspective. I hope La Bastiole or some other blog form will continue. It will be refreshing to hear your perspective of things here, too.