Zurbaran – Two Views of Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose


The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal offers subscribers a break from the frenetic pace of the world financial markets, with the latest reports of turbulence or destruction or fraud or other minor acts of malfeasance. Instead of a hurried read over the one cup of java before work, the weekend edition invites a more leisurely read, served up, hopefully, with a nice breakfast, a pot of coffee, and some time for reflection and introspection.

One of the highlights is any edition with a piece on the great artworks of the world. This weekend did not disappoint, with an article on one of the great works by Zurbaran. If I may, and I shall, what follows is an excerpt from the piece, written by Morten Lauridsen:

Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.

We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.

But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) — known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ — the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

Very nicely said, and there is nothing in the words with which one can find much disagreement. But I did forward the article to a friend who has a good eye, a way with words, and enough familiarity with great art to form his own opinions.

He writes:

Thank you for this link. And I agree with your assessment of the article, for several reasons.

One is that he simply describes the painting without offering any insight into it’s majesty, which even the symbolism does little to convey. In reality, few people (academics excepted) stand in front of this piece and ‘see’ the purity of Christ and the virgin; and even the scholars just ‘think’ about it; they don’t really envision Mary or Jesus.

The other reason is based on my having looked at this piece in the museum there for long stretches at a time; 20 and 30 minutes sometimes without moving on to the other paintings; just looking and looking (it is a jewel of a painting). Yet from that and from my related readings about it, it’s ‘mystical quality’ as he calls it has little to do with symbolism and most to do with 2 other things:

The first is its astonishing realism: every detail in every object is perfectly rendered without the objects losing their strong human quality, especially the basket which is truly exquisite.

The basket is also the compositional anchor of the painting, and it is the composition–its balance–that is considered unrivaled in still-life painting. It set the highest standard for this critical, architectural aspect of doing still life. Even perfectly rendered and beautiful objects fall short on canvas if they are not well poised in their space (especially a space with no background, as in this case where the objects must rely on only each other’s size, shape, color, and placement for counterpoise and collective balance).

It is this precise balance of solid, beautiful objects in empty space that creates the deep sense of stillness, purity, and mystery. And standing receptively in front of this painting evokes the same within the viewer.

I am afraid that this simple truth gets lost in the explanation about religious symbolism.

There is much to gain from both perspectives, but for my money, my friend’s analysis is a richer, more meaningful expression of both the painting and the painter. For we dilettantes, it is helpful to have the technique of an artist, and how that technique forms a great work, explained so that we may marvel at the skill and thought involved in the creative process.

A For Effort

candido-portinari-coffee-worker19391Once, way back when I was a working man, I had a conversation with my boss about an issue with  the operation I was managing. I can’t remember whether it was about our receiving operation, i.e. getting stock into inventory so that our call centers could sell the stuff, or whether it was about our shipping operation, i.e., getting the orders out of the distribution center and into our customers’ hands as quickly as possible. Either way, in the process of defending our operation and my management of same, I made the mistake of saying that we/I had worked our tails off to get the issue resolved to my boss’s satisfaction (and his boss, and his boss, and so forth up the food chain); but there were still problems. I will never forget his response: “We pay you for results, not effort”.

The unsaid message was, of course, that a failure by me to produce results will inevitably result in my boss’s decision not to pay me.

It’s a hard world out there in the work-universe, and by all accounts it’s getting harder by the day.

Thus, it is interesting to see this article come across my google reader this morning, via Maggie’s Farm. Their post reminds us of a possibly archaic use of the term “Give an A for effort” that implied sarcasm. Yes, I do remember that usage……

Regardless, the NYT article discusses the expectations of students in college regarding grades and effort. It makes for interesting reading. Snippets:

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”…

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “…

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”…

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

Poor Student Greenwood. Obviously he has not yet encountered the perils of working for pay, else he would not let slip some foolish words. But, to answer his question, there is something else beyond effort. It’s called results, proficiency, mastery of the subject, the ability to excel in a job. Not everyone gets an A in life or work because they worked hard.

I know first hand.

UPDATE: Q and O, as usual, states the issue more clearly….

UPDATE #2: Michelle Cottle, writing for The New Republic, is a bit harsher on the kids…..

No, Jason. What would be wrong is if a university trained its students to believe that they were excellent simply for getting up off their futons and doing what was expected of them. Did the reading? Attended class? Stayed up late working on a paper? Good for you, puppy! Sure, you did a craptastic job on that paper–not to mention the final–suggesting that you have no more than a fourth-grader’s grasp of the material. But what the hell!? You worked hard. You showed up–even when you had that reallllly bad hangover. You may not have learned much, but you sure did try. Have a nice fat A. And here’s hoping it comes in handy when your first employer fires you for not being able to tell your ass from your elbow when it comes to doing your job.

Sweet Jesus, where did such dizzying nonsense come from? Sure, it’s easy to blame today’s youth for being whiny, spoiled, and entitled. But the kids had to get these delusional ideas from somewhere. I suspect at least part of the blame lies with all those well-intentioned self-esteem-boosting messages that anxious parents, educators, and coaches feel compelled to spout in this era of making every child feel like a winner all the time. You know, the cheery, you-can-do-it mantras along the lines of, “All that matters is that you tried,” “The only way to fail is not to try at all.”

Um. No. While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we’re trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail–much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere. (As could the rest of us: Not to state the obvious, but I don’t want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.) Go ahead: Aim for the stars. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you’re not so hot at it, don’t whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren’t properly appreciated in the real world.

There’s The Dip and there’s self delusion. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate.

The Dip


A copy of Seth Godin’s new book , The Dip, fell into my hands a few days ago. Like a lot of people, I think Seth is a very smart guy. His blog is a source of wonderful insights and great ideas.

The Dip is about knowing when to quit something, and knowing when to push forward. And as I move through the process of achieving my dream, his words are timely and encouraging.

Here is a snippet that caught my eyes and immediately struck me as The Truth…

Almost everything in life worth doing is controlled by The Dip.

At the beginning, when you first start something, it’s fun. You could be taking up golf or acupuncture or piloting a plane or doing chemistry – doesn’t matter; it’s interesting, and you get plenty of good feedback from the people around you.

Over the next few days and weeks, the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it’s easy to stay engaged in it.

And then the Dip happens.

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that’s actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.

The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to certified in scuba diving.

The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” technique and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design.

The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment.

The Dip is the set of artificial screens set up to keep people like you out…

…It’s easy to be a CEO. What’s hard is getting there. There’s a huge Dip along the way. If it was easy, there’d be too many people vying for the job and the CEOs couldn’t get paid as muc, could they? Scarcity, as we have seen, is the secret to value. If there wasn’t a Dip, there’d be no scarcity.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Successful people dodn’t just ride out the Dip. The don’t just buckle down and survive it. No, they lean into the Dip. They push harder, changing the rules as they go. Just because you know you’re in the Dip doesn’t mean you have to live happily with it. Dips don’t last quite as long when you whittle at them.

I’m in my own Dip right now. It has forced me to question my goals and dreams, to doubt my abilities, to wonder if I have made a mistake. From a confident, aggressive seeker of new knowledge, I have shrunk slightly and moved into a defensive crouch.

I understand now that this is the time to become more aggressive, to confront the challenges, to re-assert my determination to reach my goal.

Thank you, Seth

The IQ of Where To Be

Like a lot of kids around the southeast, I grew up watching Dean Smith’s Tarheels play basketball. Phil Ford, Dennis Wuycik, Bobby Jones, these were the names we knew during our formative years. For us, the Tarheels represented the metaphor for how people should be. Team first, unselfish, play within the system, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; all values that we knew would be important later in life. We knew how they playted the game: play defense, make the other team foul early so that UNC would get to the 1 and 1 first, always make a least two passes before looking for the shot. Taking charges was a higher art form, and the source of much cheering and team celebration.

At least that’s how I remember it.

Today’s New York Times has a long piece by Michael Lewis (available online and in print) on Shane Battier, a former Duke player whose name I had, frankly, parked in a forgotten corner of my memory. The piece enlightens, and honors the player that is the latest manifestation of those principles that we adored, and thought important, as 17 year-olds.

This sentence captures the essence of the man and the basketball player:

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

Take 20 minutes and enjoy the story.

Bush-Hilter Yields to the Obama Nation

The Obama Revolution has wasted little time taking control of the state organs. Hilary watches as her promised perch on the world stage is reduced by a succession of “Special Envoys” who take their instructions from a committee of factotums working deep in the bowels of the OEOB. Never mind that they didn’t need Congressional approval (or vetting by the IRS). And being Secretary of the Treasury doesn’t mean much when there’s a posse of equally important financiers whispering in the ear of The One in his office while What’s-His-Name can’t get an appointment. And so it goes, drip by drip, in the corridors of power.

It now appears that the lust for absolute power in Washington was not just the goal of the fascist Bush and his frog-marching sidekick Cheney. Now it is clear that no right(ahem) thinking politician would go through the Augean Stables of running for the Presidency, raising $750 Million ($20 at a pop, we’re told), appearing before adoring crowds around the world, just to kick the can of Big Decisions down the road to Congress, the people’s building. Now we understand that our community organizer and US Senator (for 4 years) means what he says: That he represents a new and better way, that he will change the way Washington operates, that he will fix our country. Remember, folks, he won.

Now we understand. Bi-parisanship means appointing Republicans of a certain tilt to a Cabinet that exists to employ the loyal, not to operate as a Federal agency. Power is not to be shared lightly nor control allowed to pass beyond the reach of the Central Office.

So Judd Gregg, erstwhile Republican, becomes the latest politician to relinquish the reins of power that are Constitutionally his to protect. In return for his appointment as Secretary of Commerce, he will cede control of the Census Count to those unnamed factotums in the bowels of the White House and the OEOB. Who will, in due course, assign the task of conducting our National Census to their long-time ally, ACORN. You remember ACORN…they of the voter fraud cases in many states, the dead men, the fake names, all for the purpose of ensuring the election of the Democrat candidate in whichever Congressional/Presidential election.

What’s wrong with this picture?

H/T Samizdata

And Michael Barone adds his thoughts.

Trees or Buildings?

The College of Charleston is one of the prettiest campuses around. It compares favorably with the Virginia schools, and gives the Ivy League’s best a run for their money. The central feature of the campus is Randolph Hall and its lovely yard. A wonderful tradition is the graduation ceremonies held in front of the hall, on a stage erected atop the equally historic cistern. The walk across the cistern to receive one’s degree is a revered memory of every graduate.

Randolph Hall
Randolph Hall

But on this bucolic campus, historic and yet committed to the future, a controversy is brewing.

It seems that the historic Randolph Hall needs renovation (as most very old buildings do), partly due to moisture damage that is wreaking havoc with the masonry and stucco. Part of the proposed solution is to remove 10 trees that have grown up hard by the outside walls of the building and whose presence has contributed significantly to the moisture problem.

Predictably, some folks think that the removal of the offending trees is a terrible idea. Already there are tweets flying, petitions being passed about, and interest groups being alerted/activated to stop the process.

The local newspaper provides some detail:

Among those opposed to the tree-cutting are College of Charleston Professor Phil Dustan, an ecologist in the biology department, and Jean Everett, a senior instructor in the same department.

“To have this set of trees at the building end of the Cistern really adds a lot of character and diversity to the Cistern yard,” Everett said. “I’m kind of a tree person, and I really don’t want these particular trees to be taken down.”

At least one student was out Friday collecting petition signatures to oppose the tree-cutting, and Everett and Dustan said they hope student opposition could change the administration’s mind or at least open the issue for discussion.

The trees at the center of this debate include 4 magnolias and 2 palmettos. All were planted after Hurricane Hugo swept through town in 1989….20 years ago.

Wikipedia reminds us of the historic nature of the original campus…..

The College of Charleston Complex: Main Building, Library, and Gate Lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971.[6][5] According to a description by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, “The historic campus of the College of Charleston contains three structures, the Main Building, the Library, and Gate Lodge, situated in an attractive setting of evergreen oaks, that achieve a certain degree of unity by means of the prevailing Pompeian red coloring of their stuccoed walls.”[10] The main building, as designed by William Strickland, was built in 1828-29, and was revised in 1850 by the work of Edward Brickell White which added “six giant Roman Ionic pillars” and otherwise developed a more “grandiose” vision. The Gates Lodge, designed by White, was built in 1852 in a matching Roman Revival style. The College Library was designed by George E. Walker and was built in 1854-56.[5]

And here is a photo of the site taken in 1940: Note the absence of any magnolias, palmettos, oaks, shrubs, hedges or any other kind of growth adjacent to the building. One could argue that the building and its environs are even more magnificent when visible in all of their grandeur.

Randolph Hall c.1940
Randolph Hall c.1940

One of the great things about Hurricane Hugo, if such a phrase can be used in the same breath with that monster, was the revelation of once hidden vistas around the city. Non-native trees, or weakened members of native speciess, were blown down. Bushes and shrubs of suspicious provenance or weakened state were cast into the streets and gutters by the violent winds. Lattices and runners were stripped of their supported growths. The glory of the architecture of Charleston was revealed anew for its citizens and visitors to enjoy. Structures intended as the best work of architects, builders, and owners were visible after years of hiding behind man-planted obstacles. Ask natives if they remember the unexpected surprises of new views in the years immediately following the great hurricane.

Should a great building be put at risk by 20 year old trees? Should the architectural treasure that is Randolph Hall be hidden behind the ubiquitous magnolia or our great state symbol, the palmetto tree?

I think not.

Screwed by The Parking Gods


A letter to the editors in today’s Post & Courier takes the city to task:

In December, the city of Charleston raises parking fines 75 percent
to encourage citizens to use parking garages in downtown Charleston.

in January, the city’s Department of Revenue introduces the SmartCard
to make it more convenient to pay at a parking meter. Obviously the
debit-style card is aimed at locals (business people, clients, shoppers
and students) because “visitors from off” wouldn’t know about the

The immediate effect of the increase is that a meter violation now results in a parking ticket worth $14.

Then there was this bit of news that appeared in the paper on December 22:

In March, the city moved parking enforcement duties from the police
department to its revenue collections division. This loosened up budget
dollars and helped the city hire more parking enforcement officers.

Let me tell you that, as a “customer” of parking in downtown Charleston, around the College of Charleston, the enforcement troops are ubiquitous, aggressive, and determined. They are indeed attempting to force people into the garages that are sprinkled around the campus. Several of those garages are privately owned. Guess what? They just doubled their charge for the first two hours!

The law of unintended consequences? Or a nefarious plot. Either way, I’m screwed.