The Curtain Is Patterned Gingham



Illustration by Na Kim.

Fictional wall texts, with thanks to the object labels at the Brooklyn Museum. 

A fight over pumpernickel bread results in tragedy. Quinto’s use of burgundy paint for the dried blood on the tip of the foreground figure’s machete is related to the shortage of crimson in the nineteenth-century pallet. Quinto died in Brooklyn in 1901.

Gallup Trenton’s wife of forty-two years, Anne Grace Bellington, was his muse and model for works that range from photography to poolside performance. But it was a Memorial Day weekend encounter with his mistress, Pierra de la Fucci, that led to this joyous exploration of romance, foreplay, and the artistic possibilities of plaster of Paris. An artist herself, de la Fucci gifted this sculpture to the Museum after Trenton’s death. The monumental scale of the nude, including its commitment to puckered lips and seductive eye roll, is the embodiment of female power.

The wood used to construct this early Dutch cabinet, including its secret compartment, comes from a genus of tree, Quercus, that is native to 10 percent of New York’s sixty-two counties. The latches are crafted from rose gold.

Little information remains about the origins of these traditional Korean celadon bowls, which have delicate etchings on the inner edges. Scholars suggest that, by the seventeenth century, porcelain had become more popular than the better-known Buncheong stoneware. In the parallel lines across the middle of the cookware, one can see traces of the comblike tool used by the anonymous artisan, the unusual tremors of the artisan’s lines betraying, perhaps, their exhaustion.

In this partially fictionalized scene, Abraham Dinowitz depicts a private dinner at President Washington’s home in Philadelphia. Washington, strikingly, is absent from the dinner itself, instead shown excusing himself to perform ablutions. The core of this work by the noted nineteenth-century caricaturist centers on the pallid faces of the women present, including Martha Washington, Elizabeth Hamilton, Abigail Adams, and the Contessa di Parma, a long-term romantic partner of the Marquis de Lafayette. The contessa is draped in white robes uncharacteristic of the period, a sign of the artist’s playfulness. The curtain in the upper right-hand corner is patterned gingham.

The white-capped mountains and antelope skeleton depicted here mark this classic of Wyoming outdoor painting as an antecedent to the Wind River Range School, whose members achieved fame in San Francisco before descending into madness in the summer of 1863, following floods, hunger, and a latrine-based love triangle involving two of the group’s leading figures. Carter, who died of alcohol poisoning in 1865, paints the wild-haired rancher in the lower left corner at a slightly smaller scale, emphasizing the size of Gannett Peak, the state’s highest point at 13,804 feet. The shade of blue beneath the river is violet aquamarine.

Debuted at the 1833 Salon in Paris, this triumph of animal-kingdom realism was Barye’s first foray into life-size sculpture. The bronze of a lion crushing a snake, an ode to the triumph of the July Revolution of 1830, was created in the Parisian native’s workspace beneath the bistro of the Jardin des Plantes zoo. Barye rented his studio at a high premium so that he could dissect diseased animals and accurately recreate their muscles, armature, positioning, and grace. “He had a predilection for the animal dead since his school years,” his sister said not long before she died in a riding accident in 1872. “For his first sculpture, he inserted marble eyes into the skull of a neighbor’s cow.” Barye’s inability to conform to the era’s human-focused artistic sensibilities often kept him in poverty until his greatest achievement: the launch of a foundry to cast small bronzes in quantity. His facsimiles of foreign animal-fighting scenes became available at moderate prices to the middle class. These casts have been found in the collections of Henry Ford as well as in the municipal buildings of Oxford, Mississippi, and Plattsburgh, New York. Barye’s ingenious industrial breakthrough regarding the mass production of identical pieces laid the groundwork for the expansion of the American railway system and the creation of the Winchester rifle. Today, the Jardin des Plantes zoo does not allow the dissection of any creatures.

In this most carefully composed edition of the artist’s Winter Scenes series, the nineteenth-century Brooklyn waterfront comes to life. The village’s social world is quickly sketched through a collection of figures, each identified in a corresponding key (see right). The inclusion of manual laborers, farmers, and leading members of the legal profession, such as Judge Thos. Willings, displays the national and municipal pride of the artist, himself an immigrant from poverty-stricken rural England who would go on to die destitute. The amateur status of the artist, in a moment when America remained on the periphery of the great European empires, explains the intermittently clumsy groupings of the figures, who do not engage with each other but remain isolated in their own plots of pristine snow. Guy captures the snow’s glare with with careful dabs of aquamarine and sienna. The farmer hauling a load of butter and milk does not notice the bloody dog that has hauled itself to the back of his wagon. The pregnant woman retrieving a drink from the hand pump is dressed in the traditional clothes of mourning, unchaperoned by husband, father, or family relative. In the utmost corner are the two clearest figures. One, a hunched black man, represents the area’s burgeoning African American community (see “The Museum Reconsiders: Part 18”). The figure clutches his buttonless coat in a contrapposto pose as he drags a sled stacked with firewood, which was a precious commodity in New York during all the region’s economic downturns up until the adoption of electricity. The neighboring figure is the body of a catatonic, suffering individual—a self-portrait. The figure’s legs are angled triangularly so as to point to both the Bank of New York and City Hall across the river, in a commentary on the dual power structures of urban life. The figure’s left leg is broken, yet he is laughing. The work came into the Museum’s collection after the death of the artist’s stepdaughter, who had no children.

This figurine of Osiris was executed by Third Intermediate Period artisans. The gnarled finger that extends over chapter six of the Book of the Dead is a noteworthy innovation toward the development of silhouettes.

The aluminum prototype of this futuristic bicycle, known as the Spacelander and manufactured in 1966, was handmade at Grumman Aerospace’s Nassau County headquarters by cousins Anna and Ephraim Lopez. Technical records suggest that Anna, among the first female graduates of the Bronx High School of Science, was responsible for designing the vehicle’s ingenious propulsion system, which stored downhill energy and released it for trips at greater slope. The squirrel tails hanging from each handlebar were sourced from the Great South Bay and signify the earthy discomfort that some Americans, left out of the space race, felt about the vast sums being spent to reach the moon. Ephraim and Anna worked, respectively, in the wiring and chart room outposts of the Apollo lunar landing module project housed at Plant 5 of the Bethpage Grumman complex. Despite the practical benefits of the Spacelander, the Lopezes struggled to mass produce the invention, even before Grumman threatened legal action if they patented their work with any combination of the words lunar, module, landing, space, and fly. The Lopezes’ legal challenges ended with a small settlement. Anna left the company shortly afterward, but Ephraim was promoted to chief engineer of Plant 6, where he remained until Grumman’s merger with Northrop. He died of liver cancer in 1998, ten years before the first acknowledgement from the corporation that the PFAS chemicals used in fire-resistant material on the lunar module had seeped into the area’s sole source aquifer.

This work by an unknown Egyptian artist both models itself on and satirizes Louis Comfort Tiffany’s view of the Alabaster Mosque. It is executed with the same skill and remains an as-accurate portrayal of the exterior of the nineteenth-century construction, though the artist, unlike Tiffany, composed it from life and not from photographs. The practice of capturing Middle Eastern scenes and returning to Europe or America brought wider visions of the world to those then-provincial continents, while also laying the groundwork for the decades of extortion and exoticizing processes that would follow in the artists’ wake. The painting, though unsigned, includes an inscription on the back now understood to be a suicide note for the artist. Modern forensic work to zero in on the identity of this remarkable lost-to-history creator is being conducted by the Museum and local law enforcement through analysis of the bloody half fingerprint in the right-hand corner.

In this startingly intimate portrait, Anna Terrell Etkinson depicts an unnamed aspiring actress soon to make her debut on a post–Civil War New York City stage. Her oil-on-canvas exploration of female ambition is ballasted by an almost terrifyingly dark background that verges towards abstraction. Against such a setting, her sitter appears all the more prepared for large audiences. The rough cotton of the sitter’s collar betrays a modest background, uncommon for the subjects of Lemoyne’s mentor, the noted Boston painter William Morris Hunt. The actress’s pose, as she leans forward with one arm coquettishly balanced on her leg, signifies the changing status of women in the years leading up to Seneca Falls. Yet the actress is out of costume; she is off duty; she holds no stage prop to reassure the viewer that her ambition did anything but curdle. The work was originally held in a private collection under the alternate title “Lover Dies Young.”

This oil painting depicts a haunted nighttime ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe marking the end of World War I hostilities. Often described as lacking in mawkishness and redolent in heavy colors, Tanner’s work invites questions to which there are no answers: Whither death? When shall it come? How should we be remembered? To what end?

The work of Maurice Kish was influenced by the radical political currents of thirties New York City and his own experiences looking for employment. Born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils in Latvia), Kish temporarily and unhappily held many roles in the precarious economy of his adopted home, including poet, hansom driver, high school technical drafting teacher, semi-professional boxer, dance instructor, and line worker at multiple Brooklyn factories, where he painted flowers on glass vases. This experience is visible in the underpainting of his most well-known works, where recent digital analysis has discovered the remnants of roses and chrysanthemums on the first layer of his stretched canvases, entirely disappearing beneath the dark monotony of factories, smokestacks, and shuffling and defeated men. Kish, who suffered from severe asthma, was known to bring large canvases to the riverfront facilities where he worked, giving them away to (or pressing them upon) fellow workers who had been let go.

Early logistical support from the British Museum helped this Assyrian relief find its way to Brooklyn, where it has remained through the great turmoils of modernity. In its wake, for the English and then American artistic explorers who sought to replenish their national identities with ancient goods, are at least two crushed legs, one dislocated shoulder, and, for one porter, a lifetime of concussions and jagged conversations that to certain family members seemed a tic akin to battle fatigue. The palace decoration depicts an early warrior king identifiable through his braided beard, hunchback shoulders, and blazing eyes, which course with horror and madness and pity, as if the king knows that even he cannot escape the mortal condition. Indeed he does not, though here his visage remains.

Robert S. Duncanson completed this flawed but alluring depiction of Eden in the years before the Civil War, as an homage to the Thomas Cole work of the same title. The hopeful, paradisiac quality of the composition—trees bent from fruit, beneficent grass, a wide quiet river overlooked by a stately white promenade, half-naked figures dancing—encourages the viewer to consider the possibility of a better country and era for humanity. Known as the American West’s premier African American landscape painter, Duncanson spent his formative years traveling as a journeyman artist, decorating new housing construction in the trompe l’oeil style and enduring days upon days of house painting. As the son of an African American mother and Scottish Canadian father, his oeuvre exudes interstitial realities. Alfred Tennyson praised the American upon meeting him in London in 1853 as “a prophet” and “the last visionary of our species.” Duncanson’s death in 1872 is generally attributed to the mental illness that claimed his final years, which he spent under the belief that he was channeling the spirits and tactile needs of the great deceased masters. “My body,” he wrote in a short journal, “is no longer my own.” Subsequent analysis suggests he suffered from lead poisoning after years of house painting. This unusual oil-on-canvas example of Duncanson’s late-middle career betrays hints of the chemical madness that would overcome him. The sun is less certain than in the Cole original; the only object lit in full is the Grecian temple, which emerges in chilling white from the mauve rock of Midwestern bluffs. The river, in which two women are bathing, is brown with mud. The figures in the foreground grass are obscure enough to be anyone at all. The red dress of the woman staring or genuflecting at a statue is faded tartan. The two figures embracing under the overhanging trees might be wrestling or engaged in the act of love. The image encourages the viewer to consider the truth that anything is possible, including good and evil. There is a man staggering up with great difficulty to the temple.


Mark Chiusano’s story collection Marine Park was a PEN/Hemingway Award honorable mention. His fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Guernica, Zyzzyva, and The Atlantic. He’s an editorial writer for Newsday, teaches writing at CUNY City Tech, and is currently working on a book about George Santos.