Visiting a Woman
After my grandfather succumbed to cancer a few years ago, my mom and brother made the decision that our family had dwindled significantly enough to dispense with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Without the maestro to brine the turkey and mash the cranberries, my cousins skipped the trip to Virginia for their own celebrations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So, we started our own tradition: driving up I-95 to an empty District of Columbia to visit the National Gallery of Art, whose café offers a Thanksgiving menu for likeminded souls.
There are few enough such people that my brother and I, upon walking into the central rotunda, could joke that we were in our living room and ponder how much it would cost to buy the entire building (a lot). The space, what we would now call social distance, affords plenty of time to linger on—even fall in love with—particular paintings that might usually get overlooked in a crush of tourists. Last year, I made a point to visit with William Merritt Chase’s Study of Flesh Color and Gold, from 1888.
The model, drawn in pastel on abrasive paper, sits with her back to the viewer with a green silk around her waist, facing a golden Japanese folding screen blotched with blue and red shapes. Her black hair is in a bun, but a few strands float loosely over the nape of her neck. Her shoulders are slightly hunched in unselfconscious concentration. I thought it looked like she was reading a book; my mom thought it looked like she was playing a game on her phone. Either way, she was alone, and I had no way of knowing at the time that I would soon be taking succor at the memory of her unchanging composure. She’ll still be there when it’s safe to visit.
Nathan Strobel is an editor who lives in Roanoke, Virginia.
Study of Flesh Color and Gold was painted in 1888 by American artist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), an exponent of Impressionism and one of the founders of the school that would become Parsons School of Design. Study of Flesh Color and Gold contains Japanese composition devices, such as a title picture plane.