Colette — Irving Penn 1951


Walt Whitman — David Levine












The pose used in each of the three pieces here, with the subject leaning back from the viewer, creates a contemplative distance, a separation.

Colette is nearest of the three. Her distance is a conversational one as if across the tea table, but there’s a hierarchical implication. She isn’t eagerly engaging us. She’s waiting. Are you worthy?

Then Whitman. Here the distance is in time, which Levine creates by the open foreground. Colette’s arm and hand form a diagonal approach to her face; here a few nervous, sketchy lines perform the same function, but describe nothing beyond remove. The shadowy brim of his hat is like eternity, into which he is in the process of receding.

Camille On Her Deathbed — Claude Monet 1879


And then Camille. Here again the approach is diagonal, from lower right to upper left. As with Whitman, the distance is one of time.

The long foreground also carries a personal, domestic implication. Monet must have set up his easel at the foot of her bed, and spent some time there, painting his dead wife.



In somewhat the same vein as Maria Sibylla Merian’s “iguana and coral snake” (September 29), Jacopo de’ Barbari’s “plan of Venice 1500” falls into the engaging category of artful representation.

Barbari is obviously not a slave to literal description, especially in matters of perspective and scale. This isn’t surprising, if only because he never saw an aerial view. But think how boring the piece would be if he had attempted some low, convincing viewpoint–or if those lively ships on the lower right were reduced to fly specks. Instead we get the city as a beguiling, almost abstract shape with a lot of texture to it, which is cleverly held against the picture plane by the foreground islands, the long horizontal of the distant coast, and the various gods and winds that surround it.