Four Women of the Belle Epoque


Marie-Therèse Durand-Ruel Sewing, 1882

I want to share with you an appreciation for the representations of Marie-Therese Durand-Ruel by Renoir; Elisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, by De Laszlo; and two others, Lady Richmond and Jane de Glehn, painted by Sargent. To me they represent an essential characteristic of the civilization they lived in: a tranquil confidence.

The Renoir picture of the daughter of the famous art dealer Durand-Ruel is now in the Clark Museum at Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is a side view of a young woman sewing in a garden, crowned with a brilliant orange-red bonnet. It is of course much more than that. It makes a statement about an era, about the habits and interests of a whole generation.

The De Laszlo shows the Countess Greffulhe, the most famous Parisienne of her time, who although faithful to the philandering Henry Greffulhe, conquered the hearts of numerous eminent Europeans of the 19th and 20th century, notably Marcel Proust, who borrowed from her to create the Duchess and the Princess of Guermantes in his great novel In Search of Lost Time. Engaging with her across more than a century now, one can believe in her gleaming intelligence and love of beauty, science, and art. This picture is in a private collection, according to information at the De Laszlo Archive Trust.

The Sargent picture evokes a place, in which the women play an important but anonymous role, engaged in a private conversation over a table in a gloriously lit loggia at an Italian villa. The women were part of a group of friends, including Sargent. This picture is about the place, the atmosphere, but also about the women, showing a respect for them despite the lack of any attempt at rendering their features. This picture can be seen at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.

These three pictures carry to me the spirit of a bygone era – one that produced a horrible war at the end, but one that also produced a panoply of brilliant artists and authors, who still have a lot to offer us.

For more about the Countess Greffulhe:,_Countess_Greffulhe


Elisabeth Comtesse Greffulhe, 1909


Breakfast in the Loggia, 1910

The Flat Earthers

In today’s Albany Times Union (March 10, 2017) , my friend Rex Smith writes about the confidence we should place in the scientific pronouncements of athletes or politicians. For an athlete he chooses Kyrie Irving, a basketball player who claims to believe the earth is flat. For a politician, he chooses Scott Pruitt, the Trump appointee now in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, who does not accept that humans are responsible for global warming. Smith points out that the authority of these two worthies is questionable, at least when it comes to science. We humans know that the earth is more or less spherical, and that the recent rise in the temperature of the earth is due to the burning of fossil fuels. Any individual not versed in science would be hard-pressed to cite or discuss the evidence, and most simply accept what scientists tell them. To do otherwise is to risk, justifiably, being thought a fool.

The article got me to thinking about a book by Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World – The Discovery of Modern Science (HarperCollins, New York, 2015). UK edition: (Allen Lane, Penguin, London, 2015). Derived from a course he taught on the history of science, this little book explains many of the proofs that people have made for various propositions that we accept today, including the calculation of the circumference of the earth by Eratosthenes in Egypt during the third century B.C. He knew that at Aswan at noontime the sun was directly overhead. At Alexandria, a known distance to the North, a vertical stake at noon casts a shadow. (This alone proves the world is not flat). By measuring the length of this shadow he was able to calculate how many degrees difference there was in the direction toward the sun, and thereby infer the circumference of the earth. It is ironic indeed that Irving, who knows something about the properties of spheres, is unaware of this scientific fact which was discovered over two thousand years ago.

One might be forgiven for being a little slow appreciating the reasons behind global warming, but really it is not so difficult to grasp. Carbon dioxide has been known since the 19th century to absorb infrared radiation, which activates it and, in turn, other molecules with which it collides. The motion of these molecules is what thermometers  are really detecting when we use them to measure temperature. The more carbon dioxide in the air, the higher the temperature rises. We know for a fact that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising since 1900 from 280 ppm to over 400 ppm. We know from the amount of fossil fuel burned, and from its isotopic composition (it is deficient in C-14), that the excess carbon dioxide is derived from this fossil fuel. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Rex did not go into it in his excellent editorial, but the rise in temperature that we are experiencing is actually very perilous to ourselves. All organisms are adapted to a specific combination of temperature and rainfall. These two variables have been shown to determine the character of biomes all over the earth. As they change, the distribution of the biomes will change, and that means that many species will go extinct because they cannot change as fast as the environment in which they live. At current rates of extinction, half the world’s species will go extinct in the next 7000 years. The earth will be a pretty awful place for us to try to survive in under such a circumstance.

It does not matter if Kyrie Irving thinks the world is flat. But one cannot be comfortable with a federal official, in charge of protecting our environment, who fails to accept the facts about something so fundamental to our well-being as our responsibility for environmental change.



Betrayal of the People, III

Predictably, Trump is backing up the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The provisions of this proposed law restrict Medicaid payments, likely forcing millions of poor and elderly people to lose their health insurance. This is in stark contrast to Trump’s promise to have coverage for everybody. Opposing this law are doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies, and most likely as well essentially all the people who voted for Hillary last fall – more than those voting for Trump. Who gains from this? It goes without saying that it will not be the people who voted for Trump, or their relatives. No, the benefits of this Republican plan will be the same old crowd of wealthy individuals and corporations. Another betrayal, and we are not even into the third month of this Presidential term.

Betrayal of the People, II

The Trump administration is about to propose a rollback in emission requirements for new cars, that will lead to an increase in carbon dioxide released by the nation’s fleet. This will be a huge step backward, out of touch with the rest of the world, and will benefit only the manufacturers of automobiles (New York Times). The rest of us will be adversely affected due to increased speed of climate change, which has been proven to be due mostly to the burning of fossil fuel.

Once again, we see that despite his populist rhetoric, Trump’s real agenda is to protect the rich.

Betrayal of the People

Every day, each new policy announced further confirms the allegiance of Donald Trump to many components of a standard right wing agenda.

Here is a headline: “White House proposes steep budget cut to leading climate science agency” – Washington Post (March 3, 2017). The agency is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which surveys weather via satellites and conducts research on the atmosphere that is critical for understanding climate change. The agency is facing a 17% cut. The excuse for this is the supposed need to build up the military budget. But in fact this is a betrayal of the interests of the people, because the environment is under threat from global warming that is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, both past and present. This is what the right wing climate deniers would love to suppress. We also depend on NOAA satellites for weather forecasting. In short, this step is a reckless act of disregard for the welfare of all Americans. And it is so unnecessary. The US military is more powerful than that of any conceivable enemy. It does not need to be expanded.

The Spirit of Revenge

“Take all the prophets of Baal, and let not one of them escape you;

Bring them down to Kishon’s brook, and there let them be slain”.

Elijah, by Mendelssohn


This example, drawn from a Jewish book written several centuries before the current era, calls also to mind the events of the French Revolution, in which an increasingly violent leadership dispatched priests, aristocrats, and eventually many of their own, plus a large number of ordinary folk who fell afoul of various laws. One could also cite the purges of Armenians by the Ottomans, of Jews and handicapped in Nazi Germany, or of counter-revolutionaries in the Soviet Union.

The Terror of Robespierre was instituted to frighten the enemies of the French Revolution; it was motivated by the fear that the progress made in abolishing royalty and aristocratic privileges would be lost. Perhaps a similar fear motivated Elijah, to capitalize his victory over the prophets of Baal and prevent their ever recovering. The Ottomans were motivated by scorn or hatred for, and perhaps feelings of revenge against the Armenians who had been petitioning for better treatment for decades and were accused of helping the Russians against the Ottomans. The Nazis were motivated by hatred of the Jews and racism, including their twisted ideology of the Master Race and a desire to eliminate impure elements from the population. The Soviets were motivated by a fear of counter-revolution but also, later on, Stalin’s desire for power.

The frequently recurring theme in all this is the fear of losing power and control, often in an extremely fluid political environment.

The United States is not exempt from this kind of thinking. In Trumpism we have a racist movement, motivated by fear of foreigners, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and a spirit of revenge against liberal elites, a resentment of being considered flyover country. An ugly spirit is abroad, under the seductive banner of “Make America Great Again.” The real aim of this movement is to prevent control of the country by a coalition of minorities and progressives. Already orders are being drawn up to remove the most vulnerable Mexicans who are here illegally and have come to the attention of authorities. We have seen the attempt, momentarily thwarted, to discriminate against immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Trump himself has shown a contempt for facts and has castigated the press as “the enemy of the people”. This is not merely unattractive or illiberal. It is dangerous to the foundation of our government. If the government takes your newspaper to be an enemy, then you, as a subscriber, are the enemy too.


Time to Get the Ball Rolling

This is the text of a letter I sent to my Republican congressman, John Faso:

“You are old enough to remember the Watergate affair. After six long years Nixon’s criminality was catching up to him in 1974. In the famous words of Howard Baker, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” By August Nixon had resigned under the certainty of impeachment and conviction for a cover-up of the role of his Administration in the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

We are getting the answer for Trump after only a few weeks! He knew about Flynn’s inappropriate and possibly criminal conversations with the Russian ambassador and kept it to himself and a few aides. He did not relieve Flynn of duty as he should have done immediately. He did not mention the matter to his Vice President. He chose to go ahead with this appointee, probably for political reasons. He knew probably that it would be embarrassing. When the information got out, he was forced to act. True to form he just ignored the culpability of his own behavior.

For sure! But the parallels with Nixon are startling, complete down to the illicit attempt to expose the secrets of the opposition party.

Life would be better for all of us with Pence as President. It is already time to get the ball rolling.”

Woman in Gold

My wife and I watched Woman in Gold on Netflix yesterday. How we missed this in the regular theater I cannot say. It is an excellent film, that depicts the efforts of Maria Altmann, a refugee from 1938 Austria, to recover the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Klimt in the early 20th century. This famous picture was stolen by the Nazis and was displayed as “Woman in Gold” for many years in a Vienna museum.

Klimt’s picture is world famous, and when Maria Altmann recovered it, she sold it for 135 million dollars to a New York gallery where it is on display today. But the story told in the film is much deeper that that, with haunting flashbacks of what it was like in Vienna as the Nazis came in. A truly chilling example of what can happen to decent, even wealthy people in an authoritarian state.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on this.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf – a Letter to the president (sic)

Did your parents tell you the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? It is one of Aesop’s fables. Wikipedia sums it up:

“The tale concerns a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking wolves are attacking his flock. When one actually does appear and the boy again calls for help, the villagers believe that it is another false alarm and the sheep are eaten by the wolf. In later English-language poetic versions of the fable, the wolf also eats the boy. ”

The moral of the story of course is that there is a danger in getting to be known for telling lies. That is in not being believed when telling the truth.

Yesterday’s (February 7, 2017) falsehood about murder rates in the United States being the highest in 47 years is just the latest in a long string of lies you have told. The statistics at the FBI show that as of 2016 the murder rate was the lowest it has been in 51 years – 4.5 per 100,000.

We have already gotten to the point where nobody with an ounce of critical judgment would accept anything you say without checking the facts. Shame.

On the Nazi Track

Dear President Trump:

I was taught at home to treat everyone equally. So even as a child I had friends who were of all colors, religions, and economic backgrounds. My parents taught me to treat everybody the same as far as that goes. But they also taught me to avoid doing bad things, such as bullying other children. I suspect most people all over the world got the same instruction from their parents.

So when I learned about history, I naturally thought that the Nazis were way off base with their treatment of Jews and handicapped people, people of other nationalities and races than their own. They attacked Jews as criminals, and invited citizens to send in stories of bad things done by Jews. Later on of course they actually murdered millions of Jews, foreigners, and handicapped people.

Therefore, when you announced your campaign for President, and denounced Mexicans as murderers and rapists, I figured you were working from the Nazi playbook. I still think this, since in one of your executive orders you have called on citizens to send in examples of bad behavior by groups that are targeted by these executive orders.

Words matter, but actions matter too. You are heading down the Nazi track, only with slightly different target groups. Shame.

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