On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Feeding Time at the Frist: The Alba Collection

Museums are wondrous places, and the Frist Museum is especially appreciated not only for its attention to the arts, but also for its architecture and its place in Nashville's history.  My neighbor Patsy, a longtime member of the museum, invited me to attend a lecture one evening on the latest visiting collection, Treasures from the House of Alba. I am ashamed to admit that this was my first visit to this museum, and though I had always planned to go, circumstances beyond my control prevented it. At last I passed through its portals and feasted my eyes upon its latest exhibit as well as the building itself.

Upon entering, I was agog at the beautiful cast aluminum doors and grill work, the colorful marble and stone that enhanced the Art Deco effect of this 1934 renovated former Nashville post office.  We purchased a glass of wine in the museum cafe and took our seats in the auditorium to hear Dr. Mark Roglan give background information on the history of the Alba family and its treasures.

An ancient Spanish noble family, its heritage includes paintings from the Renaissance to the 20th century as well as magnificent tapestries from the three palaces owned by the Albas and documents from the hand of Christopher Columbus.  We had quickly roamed through the gallery prior to the lecture to get a glimpse of the collection.  Impressed,  I resolved to bring my daughter-in-law Pat and granddaughter Molly to view the various art and historical objects when they came for a visit the following month.

It was during the lecture that I gained more information about the iconic  portrait that graced all the advertising about the collection, "The Duchess of Alba in White" by Francisco de Goya, painted in 1795.  She was the 13th Duchess, whose character and looks seemed to have taken hold of Goya, who painted and sketched her many times.  I, too, became fascinated with her history, and bought a couple of books about her, so on my second trip to the museum, when we were fortunate to get in on a docent-led tour.  Later, I wrote the following poem to remember the fascinating portrait and speculate on the relationship between those two people.

The Duchess and the Painter
Portrait, 1795
The Duchess of Alba in White  
Francisco de Goya
Wear virginal white, he requested,
for your marriage at age twelve.
She agreed and found a plain gown
unlike her usual lavish dress.
The painter wrapped a scarlet sash
around her waist and tucked a bow
into the nimbus of black hair to show
her life of play and passion.

On one arm bracelets of gold
call up great wealth she claimed.
No drawing room is her background
But behind her are the Spanish plains.
At her feet a red ribboned dog
sweetly echoes her bright palette
and suggests the childless state
of this woman in her fourth decade.

Some might think her high arched brows
express disdain for those beneath her.
Still, her eyes, so dark and drooping,
have a sadness unconcealed.
In all the portraits, even sketches
Goya gives her a sober mien.
Perhaps her pleasures begin to pale,
and her lovers are found wanting.

Yet he may also depict a portent
that they both can sense unspoken.
For six years later flesh would fail
and she died in mystery.
Did the painter really love her
and she him as rumors say,
or had he served just to interpret
with a prescience for all time?