The cellphone call came while I swooned over jewelry of the Taft Museum’s Parisian exhibit: a bracelet of faceted amethysts, each doubly circled in gold and tiny diamonds shaped like flowers; a brooch of conjoined maple seed-wings, pale shimmery green and blue stained-glass; a teardrop pendant of a pearly sunset peeking through branches of a tree overhanging a waterfall.
Amid all this exquisite intricacy, I learned my friend’s son died in his sleep — an artist whose paintings grace my home. My friend’s cousin is the one who called me, crying so hard, I thought it was my friend who died.
I wandered out of the glittery show into rooms hung with large, dark paintings from masters passed centuries ago. Ominous landscapes — sullen skies, clouds laden with looming rain, trees grizzled and knotted, dense with seaweed-green foliage. Everything shadowed, hermetic.
A painting of a women’s sewing school — seated semicircle of girls, heads bent to fabric draped in their laps, dim light puddled at their feet.
The blurred violence in Turner’s Europa and the Bull. Farny’s American Plains Indian, face twisted with defeat, disgust, bewilderment.
A Millet canvas of a mother and child, baby cocooned in gauzy cloth that looks as if it’s been soaked to harden into a cast. Against the woman, the child lays lengthwise, eyes closed, arms and legs so stiff I wonder if it’s dead, the word mummy thickening in the back of my throat. The woman’s arms wrapped loosely over its torso to prevent it from slipping out of her grasp. But her eyes droop, sunken, no doubt worried and exhausted. She’s gone numb — a death of a sort.
A second Millet — another mother carries a child, one arm slung around it, trying to clasp it to her hip, but the child’s legs wiggle loose. The woman walks in a sooty blur of a landscape, a hill ahead, boulders to climb over. Caught mid-stride, one leg behind the other, bent at the knee, ready to collapse. I turn away, exit the room.
On the hall wall, a still life of profuse blooms, fruit, seashells, lizards, spiders, a parrot. The note claims it’s a reminder of mortality, that all its beauty will soon decay. Each shell already a death, the spider webs soon to snare victims, the cut flowers already lapsing toward collapse.
But those pale pink and radiant white petals, the striped tulips. The blue of the irises echoes the tight globes of grapes. Their beauty a balm, and an affront.