Louise at the Frick, by Deb Emily

Emily Winslow by Jonathan PlayerWhen I was 17, I visited the Frick Collection in New York with my friends Mary and Laurance. The Frick is just the right size to visit the whole of it in one day, and has the prettiest women’s bathroom in the city.

My favorite way to enjoy a museum is to focus on only a few special pieces that draw me in, and pass the rest. We wandered the galleries each at our own pace, staying just about within one room of each other. Mary got caught up in the marvelous light effect in The Education of the Virgin by de la Tour. I got stopped by Comtesse d’Haussonville by Ingres.

Comtesse d’Haussonville is a portrait of a nineteenth-century French countess, Louise d’Haussonville, the granddaughter of the writer Madame de Stael. It hung in a little hallway between galleries all by itself. I stopped, just stopped and stared.

Louise was clearly lovely, and rich. She wears a blue gown, its shine and pleats and crinkles perfectly captured, and gold jewelry, and her fancy hairstyle is reflected in the mirror behind her. Luxurious things–vases and opera glasses and visiting cards–surround her. She stares directly out from the canvas, challenging the viewer. Despite her relaxed pose, her gaze is defiant, knowing, smug, even pushy.

I felt like I knew her. I felt like she and I might be a lot alike. I couldn’t walk away, and willed for no one else to pass through and disturb us. For whole minutes she and I stared at one another.

I was determined to bring home a postcard, and (this was pre-internet) try to find out more about her from the library. But I didn’t need to. It turns out that a lot of people are as fascinated by her as I was. The gift shop didn’t just sell postcards; they sold a whole book.

Louise was a writer, which wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to pursue in her time and place. She needed encouragement, which she didn’t get. Her prettiness was fussed over, which distracted herself and others from the gifts of her mind (side note: for more on this, read Deb Sarah’s The Opposite of Me!!). She wrote in her diary: “If at that time my mother had taken a firm hand in the direction of my life, I would have had sufficient interest in my studies. But I was abandoned to myself, and I lacked the strength to struggle against an insuperable wave of daydreams and indolence. I languished at my piano, at my drawing table. I read novels, which were easy and dangerous reading for me. Despite my interest in gaining new talents, and though I was gifted with an artistic temperament, I had to struggle against certain difficulties of organization. I needed to be helped, encouraged–and I was not. I worked little and badly.” And, “It was said that I played with my wits like a kitten with a ball of yarn.”

She kept personal journals, about her youth, about philosophy and about politics. She became disciplined enough as an adult to write for others. She completed several manuscripts before writing the biography of Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet that was her first to be published, and was published anonymously, for a recompense of 300 francs worth of other books. (Similarly, her husband published books in exchange for hunting dogs and a horse.) Subsequent publications were attributed to “the author of Robert Emmet“. Her Youth of Lord Byron earned her 1500 francs, in money.

But it’s not her books, which were never as original or bold as she might have wished, for which she’s remembered. It’s her portrait. Ingres captured the ambition in her eyes. (And this spark is definitely from Louise herself, not imposed by Ingres; in his portrait of her much more staid sister-in-law there is nothing of this spirit in her eyes.)

The Frick Collection is located at 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY 10021 and is open Tuesday through Saturday: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Sundays: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

What’s your favorite museum?

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Emily Winslow

7 thoughts on “Louise at the Frick, by Deb Emily

  1. Monet’s gardens in Giverny are probably my favorite “museum.” I also really like the Edgar Allen Poe house here in Philly, even though it’s only an empty row-home. It’s cool to walk through and imagine what it might have looked like when he lived there, what conversations might have occurred in what rooms ….

    I love how you say you “got stopped by” the comtesse. I’ve had that experience too, of strolling along in a museum, and then some figure in a painting suddenly commands my attention, and I simply have to stop and spend some time before it. Usually, I don’t figure out why I was so drawn in until much later.

  2. Wow, Emily… fascinating post! I love Louise’s story. I don’t have one favorite museum, but I love bringing my kids to the Air & Space Museum in D.C. We’re lucky to live close by.

  3. The Frick, my favorite museum, has such an intimate feel that it does draw you into the art. Poor Louise, born too soon and too beautiful…ah, yes, Sarah’s novel knows it well.

  4. We must all get together and steal this painting for you. It has chosen you as its owner. People don’t chose art, art chooses people. I’ll now retire to my study and devise a plan as I sip some 20 year old brandy. Or, I might watch Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure.

  5. Lovely painting and a great story.

    My first book-related event for LIARS was the Association of Writers Writing Programs conference in Chicago a few months before it came out. I read from an advance copy at Women & Children First and sat on a panel focusing on the e-zine Literary Mama, where I’m fiction co-editor.

    Anyway, it was February and I had five hours to kill between hotel check-out and the departure of my train for home. Also, I wasn’t feeling well. I’d caught a cold and really just wanted to curl up and sleep. That wasn’t an option though (unless I were to try doing that in Union Station). My friend tipped me off that it happened to be free admission day at the Art Institute. What luck!

    It was incredibly claustrophobic as EVERYONE had the same great idea my friend had, but I loved it anyway, despite my cold, despite the fact I was alone. I loved seeing a woman nursing her baby in a sling looking at an Egyptian sculpture of a woman nursing her baby. I wanted badly to take a picture but I knew that would be an invasion of her privacy. I loved the hundreds of Buddhas.

    The best part was toward the very end when I found the photographs by Yousuf Karsh of many famous, illustrious people, including many writers like Hemingway, Vonnegut.

    I don’t know if the Art Institute is my favorite museum, but it’s one of my favorite museum memories.

  6. Greg, you charmer! Please wrap it in a plain brown wrapper and tell customs it’s a well-known forgery. They’ll never check. I’ll be expecting it by post in the coming weeks 😉

    Kristina, I love experiences like that. I almost hope you never go back. Sometimes it takes away to have a second time that isn’t as special. (Though the Art Institute certainly is *good* no matter what the circumstances of your visit!)

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