Mildred Armstrong Kadish, in Little Heathens, her darling little memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Depression, claims that her family had only two oil lamps before rural electrification. It's astounding to think of how dark their world must have been once night fell. Perhaps that's the world Lionello Balestrieri saw in the early years of the 20th century, when he did this painting for a triptych that outlines Frederick Chopin's life.
There in the bottom left corner, in a space only slightly lighter than the rest of the painting, sits a young Chopin, at a piano. The painting is simply too dark--Rembrandt-ish--to see for yourself, and I wouldn't see it either if it weren't an explanation hung on the wall of the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in York, Nebraska, where I saw the triptych. In this, the first of the three paintings hinged together into a wall-hanging, he's pictured creating a fuss in a German railroad station where he's consented to entertain the waiting passengers (did Chopin ever merely entertain?) Their hushed admiration is obvious in the more well-lit upper right-hand corner.
This is, I was told by a note in the museum, the young Chopin, not yet at his prime perhaps, but already drawing regard from an appreciative crowd drawn right off the streets of the city.
In this painting, the middle section of the triptych, Balestrieri gives Chopin an almost divine diadem that puts him at the visual center of our interest. Trust me, I wouldn't know any of this without that museum note, but his audience isn't a street gang from the train station. A roll call of artists, rightfully famous in their time, sit here in admiration of Chopin's genius--Liszt, Delacroix, Meyerbeer, and a woman with the improbable name of George Sand. She's sitting closest to the front, in the best light and therefore is most recognizable. She and Chopin were, for a while, I guess, a heady thing. In every way, this portrait is suggesting Chopin at the height of his powers--all of them.
And then there's this small painting on the far end. That's not him, cross-dressing at the piano. Chopin is the figure in the bed in the background, and he's obviously hurting, dying in fact, leaving via the medium of music clearly, but leaving, dying, all the same. Strangely, of the three triptych paintings, this one seems to be done with most deliberate light, which may well be its own moral lesson.
What the note in that little museum in York, Nebraska, says is, "the Polish Countess Potocka sings a psalm at his dying request."
Balestrieri created a triptych, three panels in one wide painting, a kind of visual biography of Frederic Chopin. You won't even find it on the internet. The only one I know is in a museum in York, Nebraska.
And I'm telling you all of this because it's the piece I remember best from the hour or so I spent in that museum, probably because that triptych has an inescapable momento mori theme. It says, just as clearly as Atlas, knees buckling but still holding up the globe, be prepared--the end is always in sight.
I'll be 70 years old on Saturday. Maybe that's why I'm sitting here telling you about a wall-hanging in the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum, a gift to a man named James A. Park from the Chautaqua Chorus, whoever that may have been, 110 years ago, the note says, in 1908.
Just another reminder, the morning after Ash Wednesday.