Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

All my life

I have often thought that the proper answer to questions regarding how long it took me to write a certain book should simply be, "my whole life." So I was interested to find this remark in a Dalrymple essay ("Beauty and Ugliness: on the deformation of art"), in part about that remarkable portrait painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds:
Reynolds was no mere flatterer; when an aristocrat condescendingly asked him how long it took him to paint a portrait, he replied, “All my life, my Lord.”

14 comments:

  1. Excellent answer - must remember that!

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    1. Yes, useful for all sorts of artists.

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  2. i've got a 2 vol edition of "the literary works of sir Joshua reynolds",new and improved edition, publ. by bohn in 1851. it's in pretty good condition. i haven't got into it yet, waiting for a rainy day, i guess... it looks like it's mostly in the form of discourses(essays), 463 p in vol 1 and 495 p in vol 2. with index. maybe i should have kept my big mouth shut but i thought you might find it interesting to know there is such a thing...

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    1. Sounds as if you would like the article I mentioned because it talks about how swiftly Samuel Johnson arrived at the opinion that Sir Joshua Reynolds knew how to speak and think without relying on received opinion! It's "Ugliness and Beauty" at City Journal.

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  3. tx. i'll check it out. according to boswell, johnson liked reynolds and admired him, although there's not a lot about him in boswell's "life"; always looked forward to reading his opinions, now maybe i'll get after it... great article; i like what she says re beauty vs ugliness; the bit on lenin at the end is eye opening!

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    1. The Lenin line is startling, isn't it? Makes me think of Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen." For an instant, I think perhaps lack of art makes something happen, but then remember there was music at Auschwitz.

      The beauty and ugliness portions are interesting, in a time when so many artists no longer feel that beauty is appropriate, while a few attempt to restore its power. I like some of things Makoto Fujimura says about beauty, and his work is certainly striving after the sublime.

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  4. I'm a Reynolds fan myself. He poses (and answers) the question that seems - at first glance - to be rather difficult: how can a portrait, usually done on commission, be regarded as a masterpiece? Without agonising too much I think the good Sir Josh brings a sense of time to his faces; that his sitter existed in time when painted, and now exists in another form of time for us to see. Value-added reality. I love the idea of him painting one of his mates, Dr Johnson: greatness at both ends of the studio.

    Could we extend the "All my life." claim? Even signing off a birthday card for a friend one should feel the urge to say something original or, at least, vivid. Why switch off then after all?

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    1. I like Dalrymple's light touch on time, his sense of the fleeting moment of innocence and delight in the portrait of Miss Bowles. And yes, that sense of added complexity from time passing is enriching. Some poems feel the same way, don't they? Lost beliefs, past prophecy, love now in the grave...

      As for extending the claim, I expect you have done that very thing in leaving your comment!

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  5. But does an artist/writer (or a reader) want to know what parts of the life were preparation for (or become part of) the created artifacts? Is that kind of analysis either desirable or necessary? I wonder. And perhaps the answers point to why some people create but others do not. I wonder.

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    1. I have never been much interested in the biography of writers. And as a reader, I do not care! I do like Boswell, though. But that's because his life of Johnson is so witty and fascinating, not because I need to know more about Johnson's life in order to read his works.

      People often want to know exactly how long it took to write a book, but that's not the point, is it? The worth of the book has nothing to do with length of time. It's unfair, but a book like "Rasselas" endures--having been written in great haste--while some novel that was sweated over for a decade vanishes.

      Also, all of what a maker is surely goes into the book or painting or work of art--and that is not confined to time spend making it. It is a whole life bearing down on the work.

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    2. Yes, all is true, but -- for me -- reading many authors' works can be enriched by knowing more than a little bit about the authors' lives (e.g., William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and so many more), but perhaps I am the exception.

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    3. No, I think lots of people relish such things! And if you do, go ahead and enjoy them!

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  6. i looked up fujimura on wiki. an important guy... the hihonga displayed there were beyond stunning. very wonderful creations! i must look into that more...

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    1. The real thing is so much better! Photographs can't catch that sense of crystalline depth. His nihongan materials are so gorgeous, and he wields them well.

      He is stellar, both as a painter and as a culture shaper. I admire him. He is a friend, and we were once on a national working group together and got to collaborate for a conference. I've also spoken at one of his culture care events. He's a mighty man!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.