Just under two years ago, my life changed when I looked at a painting. It was the summer of 2009 and I was a frustrated editorial intern in the office of a progressive 501(c)3 in Washington, DC, groping my way through nine lonely-making weeks of hardening cynicism about what DC is for and how little power anyone in it has to make it a less messed-up place. I began the internship thinking I wanted to be a journalist, and by the sixth week, I knew that as laudable as the people who use their pens for good in DC are, it wasn’t my calling. I was looking for a way out—and so I went to the National Gallery.
My visit to the National Gallery was the first time I chose on my own to go to an art museum. I knew virtually nothing about art, how to look at it, how to appreciate it, what it meant to look at a painting. I roamed from room to room, seeing for the first time paintings by artists from Watteau to Eakins to Cassatt. And I stopped dead when I happened by chance across an enormous painting by James McNeill Whistler, perfectly framed in an archway so as to stand out amidst all the other 19th-century offerings in the National Gallery. Called Symphony in White, No. 1, the painting is a full-length, life-size picture of a woman—not so much a portrait as a depiction of something unreal and ethereal, the rough brushwork unlike the hyperrealism of many of Whistler’s contemporaries, the vacant expression in the woman’s eyes deflecting attention from her face and in turn towards the folds of her white dress, and to her shoe, peeking out from under its hem, as she points her toe at the head of a grotesque bearskin rug. It’s an awe-inspiring image: two years ago, without yet having the words in me to describe what I was seeing, I sat down and looked at that painting for solid minutes. I had never done such a thing before, but I stared at the Symphony, it stared back, and the vacant stare looking down on me seemed to assume a cosmic significance. It sounds trite to say this now, but it was at that moment that my life changed. Struck as I was by the painting’s beauty, I resolved to work to increase the number of beautiful things in the world, and decrease the number of ugly things. I wanted to think about things that were good, and I wanted to do things with my life that would not make me cynical.
As I walked out onto a sunny, humid National Mall, I knew I was going to be an academic, not a journalist. When I found myself telling this story to a stranger in a coffeeshop the following week, I knew it was true. And I haven’t wavered since. The hold Whistler and his contemporaries (artistic, literary, and otherwise) have maintained on me since that day is a big part of what has driven me headlong into the nineteenth century as my period of study, and as I have learned more about their historical context I have modified quite a bit the juvenile creed of aesthetic hedonism with which I began. Instead of reading the Symphony in White goddess’s (for so I came to think of her) stare as an exhortation simply to seek beauty, I came to see it as an invocation of duty: a call to better myself and the world around me, to believe in my power to do good on my own terms, to (in the words of the very Victorian man, himself no aesthete, who has become the center of my life) “live with steady purpose in the whole, the Good, the Beautiful,” and to always aim not just to be and to do good, but (in the words of a much-admired mentor and friend) to be and to do “better.” In an 1890 essay “On the Relation of Art to Science and Morality,” John Addington Symonds wrote that “art is able to assert man’s moral nature at moments when it seems in other spheres to have been paralysed or vitiated.” So it was with me in the National Gallery in the summer of 2009. I looked at a painting by the artist most famously derided by Ruskin, whose blank-eyed model bespeaks the painter’s lack of interest in giving his painting a moral, and imbued that painting with all the meaning I could muster out of all a young adult’s desperate search for purpose and ethical paradigm.
Today I took a break from the exhausting enterprise of organizing my Symonds source material and headed into London, because this is the first weekend of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s special exhibition on the aesthetic movement and I couldn’t wait to see it. I now spend my days, and my thoughts, with a circle of intellectuals who all engaged in some way with the questions the aesthetes raised about the relationship between ethics and art, and I am preoccupied above all with trying to understand what it meant to be someone to whom such questions mattered so much. This afternoon, I had already spent an hour and a half or so in the exhibition, soaking up material culture and fun facts and beautiful Kelmscott Press books and more Burne-Jones and Rossetti than I could even begin to process, when I rounded a corner and let out an audible gasp: there she was. My goddess. And for the first time, I believe, since Whistler first exhibited his series of three Symphonies in White, she was flanked by her companions, who usually live at the Tate and at a museum in Birmingham—though none is as majestic as she. She dominated the wall in the V&A as she had in the American National Gallery. Just as I was two years ago, I was struck by her size, by her majesty, by the ability of her stare to be at once vacant and to contain multitudes. I wanted to do something to tell her what it meant to me, to see her again. I wanted to cry, or possibly to genuflect. I wanted to say, thank you. Thank you for changing my life.
Two years ago I was a lost kid whose sense of home was rapidly being destabilized by the culture shock occasioned by living 3,000 miles from home in (DC and Princeton alike) another world. Two years ago, I was an anxious kid who cried a lot because I was convinced Princeton had only admitted me for being the child of an alumna, because I failed to live up to the impossibly high standards I set for myself, and above all because I couldn’t imagine any way to do good in the world that would allow me also to preserve my sense of self, my sense that it is okay (and in fact necessary) to be myself. I didn’t know that I had to help myself before I could help others. When I saw Symphony in White, No. 1 again today, I looked her in the eye—as a historian, as a student and a teacher, as someone who, as often as I fail at living the virtuous life to which I aspire, wakes up every morning willing to try again. I am someone who finds the question “Where are you from?” impossible to answer, but call the University—qua idea—my home. I am someone who believes I have a right to exist, that I am important, that my life has a purpose, and that I am capable of fulfilling it to the best of my ability. It is no coincidence that it was after I came back from Washington that I started to recognize I have the capacity to make a difference in the lives and the minds of those around me; after all, it would be a mortal sin to my white-clad goddess not to act upon one’s calling.
Recently, I’ve been evincing a lot of skepticism of the Dan-Savage-constructed “It Gets Better” narrative: the uncomplicated teleological happy ending, and the notion that simply crafting such a narrative can be a solution to awful, scary, stomach-turning things like teenage suicide. But I have also recently been evincing a desire to move beyond mere skepticism, and so here I am. I am sitting in a room on Broad Street, dreaming spires visible from my window, buried in a mass of notes from which I’m going to make an original contribution to my field. And it’s from here that I look up to the National Gallery postcard of Symphony in White, No. 1 over my desk and ask: does it get better?
Yes, dear reader. Yes it does.