Saturday, March 30, 2013

Little Resurrections


Resurrectio in Latin is a universal concept of coming spiritually or physically back to life after death. It is the central theme of the Christian Easter, which will be tomorrow this year. I don’t believe Jesus physically arose from the dead, but I do believe in resurrection both in the larger spiritual sense and in the everyday sense. Everyday, or little, resurrections are acts of will.

Two days ago my mother-in-law, along with several family members, took the ashes of my father-in-law to sea off the coast of southern California. My father-in-law was 86 when he died a couple of weeks ago. Twenty-two years ago, their daughter Diana, my wife of 23 years, died at age 43. It struck me this week that if I lived to my father-in-law’s age of 86, my life will have been divided equally between the years before and after my beloved wife’s death.

When Diana died, so did I. So did her parents and others. And so did our children: our daughter in college at the time, our high school son, and our three-year-old son. Since that dreadful moment of loss, we have lived on, as others have done following moments of spiritual death. Our lives are acts of resurrection. Each day, we will ourselves to come back to life.

“Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground,” wrote Jessamyn West, an Indiana Quaker and author of The Friendly Persuasion. “Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past then lives in your words and you are free.”

Life, for me and I suspect for many others, is a series of little resurrections. By writing this reflection today, Diana, and my father-in-law, live on. And in this little resurrection I also am free to live again.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Houdon and the American Collective Memory

Recently my family and I embarked on a spring vacation road trip that included spending time in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The trip was, partly by intention and partly by accident, a kind of civic education tour. One persistent memory for me has become the artistry of Jean-Antoine Houdon, the French neoclassical sculptor.

Houdon (born at Versailles, March 20, 1741 – died in Paris, July 15, 1828) excelled at portraying with classical realism the great figures of his day. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art I encountered his bust of Benjamin Franklin, which stands at the center of small rotunda gallery. Franklin did not sit for Houdon, who apparently drew on memories of having seen the American statesman at various times when Franklin was representing the fledgling United States in France from 1776 to 1785. A 1778 marble version of the bust can be viewed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Houdon exhibited a terra cotta version at the French Royal Academy Salon in 1779. (A 1778 terra cotta bust of Franklin can also be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.)

Houdon actually met Franklin in 1783. The Philadelphia marble bust dates from 1785 and is the most detailed. It has become the iconic portrait in the round of the American statesman. At eye level one can almost imagine standing before the great man himself.

Houdon’s plaster bust of George Washington stands in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Franklin invited Houdon to visit the United States, specifically so that Washington could sit for the artist. However, in the National Gallery the more remarkable images may well be two busts of the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, whose ideas helped shape the thinking of many of America’s founders. Voltaire was a favorite model for Houdon. The two marble busts in the National Gallery show Voltaire with and without a perruque (wig) but both with a wry smile, consistent with Voltaire’s fame for his wit.

At Monticello visitors can see Houdon’s bust of Thomas Jefferson, a terra cotta-patinated plaster on a marble plinth. Jefferson met Houdon while the former was minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Before leaving France at the outbreak of the French Revolution, Jefferson acquired ten or twelve terra cotta-patinated plaster busts of figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Voltaire for Monticello. Jefferson also sat for Houdon himself and brought back several plaster versions of his own bust to give to friends.

Houdon worked from life, portraying the noteworthy figures of his day with extraordinary skill and accuracy, thus giving future generations the images that form the American collective memory of its founding generation. What a marvelous gift these images are for today and for the future.