Cover Art

Arsène Vigeant (1885) by John Singer Sargent. All it is necessary to know about Vigeant (and all it is possible to know after five minutes of online research) is that he was a French fencing master who compiled a bibliography of historical texts on the sport. That’s a sword leaning against the wall behind him in Sargent’s portrait. It’s a nice intersection, swords and books. What is a good book, after all, but a blade to kill life’s idle hours, a weapon to murder ignorance and pretension and lack of sympathy in ourselves? Full image:

Portrait of Arsene Vigeant by John Singer Sargent 1885

Previously featured on the TNP cover:

— The Garden of Earthly Delights by Herionymus Bosch (1450-1516) is like the ocean or the globe of the earth itself. You can look at it but you can’t see it. The triptych is so big that you can’t fit it all into a single frame of vision unless you step way the hell back. From that perspective, however, you won’t be able to make out any of the particulars or fine points. So take your pick. It’s about what you want in life, the big picture or the details, because you can’t have both. Full image:

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

— Portrait of Georg Gisze (1532), by Hans Holbein the Younger. The merchant of Danzig was thirty-four when Holbein painted him. He looks like one of those guys who are constantly blubbering about hosiery and the Hanseatic League. I know because I work with people just like him. The portrait was probably painted in England where Holbein lived much of his life, narrowly escaping the executioner’s axe as three of his patrons fell to it: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cromwell. Full image:

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (1485) by Hans Memling. There are few things in the history of art so winsome and breezy as Memling’s memento mori. Flanked on either side by Death and the Devil (both of them dancing a jig), Miss Vanity steals a moment to check her makeup and tiara. She must admit, she’s the best looking girl at the party.  Her little dog agrees.  Full image:

— El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz (1586) depicts a local legend according to which the former Senor of Orgaz, a famous philanthropist, was personally buried by Sts Stephen and Augustine in front of the assembled nobles of Toledo. Though the miraculous event took place two hundred years earlier, El Greco incorporated portraits of contemporary Spanish nobles into the scene. I’m sure they were all pleased to see themselves in the painting, though it’s unclear to me how they could tell each other apart. Something about El Greco: He liked to sit in dark shuttered rooms to do his thinking. The outward dark, he said, helped him to see his inner light. Full image:

Count Orgaz El Greco Smaller

Pierrot, by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Watteau was a melancholic, which is ironically appropriate for the inventor of the fêtes galantes genre: he must have painted all those Régence garden party scenes to distract himself from his creeping tuberculosis. The subject of Pierrot is different: a commedia dell’arte player with an odd smile who (if you’ll pardon a quote from Wikipedia) “appears to have forgotten his lines; he has materialized into the fearful reality of existence, sporting as his only armor a pathetic clown costume.” I know the feeling. Full image:

Watteau; Pierrot

–The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds, the Romantic era masterpiece by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). I can’t look at it without hearing the french horn at the opening of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Friedrich had the curious habit of giving us his subjects’ backs. But of course, that’s not the point. What Friedrich really delivers in his fresh-faced idealistic sort of way is Mankind Confronting the Natural World Afresh, reconsidering his relationship to it, plotting out new paths through the wilderness of modernity. Full image:


— The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (1525-1569) . This is the Bruegel who fathered all the other Bruegels (and Brueghels), one of which (Jan Brueghel) is also known as “The Elder” and three of which (Pieter, Jan Jr, and David Teniers) were incautiously designated “The Younger.” Which must have made for confusing holiday parties. Full image: