The painting over the sofa


I was reading a little vignette about a writer I’d never heard of, Nathan Englander, in the Financial Times a few days ago.  He is evidently an up-and-coming genius of 42.



I have decided that I don’t like him.



The FT often does something like the Proust questionnaire with certain celebrities.  They ask them questions from a list: What’s your favorite virtue?  What do you most dislike about yourself? If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?  (New York Magazine does it, James Lipton does it on “Inside the Actors Studio,” everyone does it.  If the interviewee is intelligent or witty or (insh’allah) both, the results can be a lot of fun.  If not, it can be excruciating.)



Mister Englander tends toward the excruciating.  His answers are leaden and pompous: he mentions that he finds writing “all-consuming” in the same breath that he claims to take exactly 49 minutes to brush his teeth.  He is trying too hard.



This answer especially brought me up short:



If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“Guernica.”  I remember being taken to say goodbye to it in New York by my mum.



Dear Jesus.  Can you imagine “Guernica” hanging over your sofa?  How charming to come home after a hard day of work and sit down in the living room in front of a Cubist painting of lightbulbs and corpses and mutilated cattle.



I’d find it a little unnerving.



I asked myself the same question, and the answer came to me easily.  And the painting lives right now the road from me, too.



About ten blocks away from our apartment, in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, hangs a painting by a Dutch landscapist named Salomon van Ruysdael called “The Ferry Boat.”  It was painted in 1645, and it looks as fresh today as it ever did.  I always spend a few minutes with it when we visit the RISD Museum.



The above image doesn’t capture all of the detail, but it will give you the general impression.  First: the soft colors, especially the pale blue sky and drifting dark clouds, and the dark green foliage, and the gray water.  Then the composition: the trees leaning right, the clouds leaning left, the church in the center (or just off-center) pointing straight up, the sailboats just a little askew.



It is perfect peace.  It is a country morning, and the day will be mostly sunny; the clouds are a little dark, so it might rain a bit later, but it will certainly clear up again.



Now this part you’ll have to take on faith.  You can’t really see the faces of the people on shore or on the ferryboat, but if you could, they would surprise you: they are grotesque little figures, some of them grimacing and leering.  The first time I took a really close look in the museum, I nearly jumped back.



I love the painting even more for that.  It’s perfectly serene, an ideal landscape for over the sofa.  And it has hidden secrets that it only reveals if you look at it closely.



And, if I really worked at it, I could probably steal it and bring it home.






About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to The painting over the sofa

  1. I agree his choice of painting is not mine, but maybe there is an emotional attachment to it in relation to his mother. One never knows. It would have been interesting if the interviewer had asked “why?”.

    • Agree completely. Wonderful to own a great work of art, especially if it has a personal attachment. Speaking for myself (and my own shallow taste), I like something to be both meaningful and decorative/beautiful. The one real Work of Art I own is a Cocteau lithograph of the French composer Erik Satie; I like Cocteau, I like Satie, and the drawing is charming. Not a great work of art, but I’m very pleased with it.

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