Members of the American public who know nothing else about American art think they know one thing. They may believe that Copley founded a famous hotel in Boston, or that Winslow Homer wrote the Iliad, but they do know one thing. A scholar rash enough to admit that he is writing books on American painting almost fears to meet strangers lest the inevitable story can reappear more than once an evening. It bursts from the mouths of babes, debutantes at cocktail parties, or old crones at historical society meetings. I was even stopped in the street once at midnight by a drunken neighbor who shouted till the skyscrapers rang, "Do you know what an itinerant painter did! He brought a lot of already painted bodies to my grandmother's house, let her pick out the one she liked best, and then added her head."
When I was a young man full of faith in the human race, I believed the demand of prefabricated bodies and superimposed heads that was told me by so many worthy-looking people and was published in so many expensive books. And, furthermore, it can make perfectly good sense. According to the most sophisticated version of the tale, primitive painters, who in the summer scoured the countryside with horses and wagons, were in the winter imprisoned by impassable roads. To while away the heavy hours and to keep from losing too much time, they ran up a store of headless bodies. Because they were working completely from imagination and without models, they created those fine flowing designs of lace and sleeves and and belt and necklaces which certainly are not naturalistic and which some modern critics have called "abstract."
Come spring, so the story contines, when they were knocking again on farmhouse doors, they laid the half-finished canvases out on the lawn and let the rural chatelaine choose the costume and anatomy she most fancied. Wasp wrists and pearls, of course, came higher than unfashionable gown and dumpy figure. One always has to pay for the best.
The pictures themselves seem to give mute testimony for this practice.
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Publication information: Book title: Random Harvest. Contributors: James Thomas Flexner - Author. Publisher: Fordham University Press. Place of publication: Bronx, NY. Publication year: 1998. Page number: 154.
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