"Right," I said tentatively. Of the paintings she'd mentioned, The Anatomy Lesson was the only one I knew. A detail from it was featured on the poster for the exhibition: livid flesh, multiple shades of black, alcoholic-looking surgeons with bloodshot eyes and red noses.
"Art One-oh-one stuff," said my mother. "Here, take a left."
Upstairs it was freezing cold, with my hair still wet from the rain. "No, no, this way," said my mother, catching my sleeve. The show was complicated to find, and as we wandered the busy galleries (weaving in and out of crowds, turning right, turning left, backtracking through labyrinths of confusing signage and layout) large gloomy reproductions of The Anatomy Lesson appeared erratically and at unexpected junctures, baleful signposts, the same old corpse with the flayed arm, red arrows beneath: operating theater, this way.
I was not very excited at the prospect of a lot of pictures of Dutch people standing around in dark clothes, and when we pushed through the glass doorsfrom echoing halls into carpeted hushI thought at first we'd gone into the wrong hall. The walls glowed with a warm, dull haze of opulence, a generic mellowness of antiquity; but then it all broke apart into clarity and color and pure Northern light, portraits, interiors, still lifes, some tiny, others majestic: ladies with husbands, ladies with lapdogs, lonely beauties in embroidered gowns and splendid, solitary merchants in jewels and furs. Ruined banquet tables littered with peeled apples and walnut shells; draped tapestries and silver; trompe l'oeils with crawling insects and striped flowers. And the deeper we wandered, the stranger and more beautiful the pictures became. Peeled lemons, with the rind slightly hardened at the knife's edge, the greenish shadow of a patch of mold. Light striking the rim of a half-empty wine glass.
"I like this one too," whispered my mother, coming up alongside me at a smallish and particularly haunting still life: a white butterfly against a dark ground, floating over some red fruit. The backgrounda rich chocolate blackhad a complicated warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of time.
"They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch paintersripeness sliding into rot. The fruit's perfect but it won't last, it's about to go. And see here especially," she said, reaching over my shoulder to trace in the air with her finger, "this passagethe butterfly." The underwing was so powdery and delicate it looked as if the color would smear if she touched it. "How beautifully he plays it. Stillness with a tremble of movement."
"How long did it take him to paint that?"
My mother, who'd been standing a bit too close, stepped back to regard the paintingoblivious to the gum-chewing security guard whose attention she'd attracted, who was staring fixedly at her back.
"Well, the Dutch invented the microscope," she said. "They were jewelers, grinders of lenses. They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something. Whenever you see flies or insects in a still lifea wilted petal, a black spot on the applethe painter is giving you a secret message. He's telling you that living things don't lastit's all temporary. Death in life. That's why they're called natures mortes. Maybe you don't see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closerthere it is."
I leaned down to read the note, printed in discreet letters on the wall, which informed me that the painterAdriaen Coorte, dates of birth and death uncertainhad been unknown in his own lifetime and his work unrecognized until the 1950s. "Hey," I said, "Mom, did you see this?"
But she'd already moved on. The rooms were chilly and hushed, with lowered ceilings, and none of the palatial roar and echo of the Great Hall. Though the exhibition was moderately crowded, still it had the sedate, meandering feel of a backwater, a certain vacuum-sealed calm: long sighs and extravagant exhalations like a room full of students taking a test. I trailed behind my mother as she zigzagged from portrait to portrait, much faster than she usually went through an exhibition, from flowers to card tables to fruit, ignoring a great many of the paintings (our fourth silver tankard or dead pheasant) and veering to others without hesitation ("Now, Hals. He's so corny sometimes with all these tipplers and wenches but when he's on, he's on. None of this fussiness and precision, he's working wet-on-wet, slash, slash, it's all so fast. The faces and handsrendered really finely, he knows that's what the eye is drawn to but look at the clothesso loosealmost sketched. Look how open and modern the brushwork is!"). We spent some time in front of a Hals portrait of a boy holding a skull ("Don't be mad, Theo, but who do you think he looks like? Somebody"tugging the back of my hair"who could use a haircut?")and, also, two big Hals portraits of banqueting officers, which she told me were very, very famous and a gigantic influence on Rembrandt. ("Van Gogh loved Hals too. Somewhere, he's writing about Hals and he says: Frans Hals has no less than twenty-nine shades of black! Or was it twenty-seven?") I followed after her with a sort of dazed sense of lost time, delighted by her preoccupation, how oblivious she seemed of the minutes flying. It seemed that our half hour must be almost up; but still I wanted to dawdle and distract her, in the infantile hope that time would slip away and we would miss the meeting altogether.
Excerpted from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Copyright © 2013 by Donna Tartt. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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