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Picturing a World

Walter Gay (5) The Gilded Age

Here is Walter Gay depicting the Gilded Age interior splendor for which he is best known. The word is luxe. (And, yea, the painting is shown in its ornate gilt frame.) I'll leave it to art historians to discuss Gay as an artist. For those of us who write fiction his pictures offer loads of period details for life among the rich in the latter part of the 19th C and into the 20th, especially in France.


In this one, for instance, we have that polished chest of drawers (the commode of the title) with its matched candlesticks, tabletop sculpture, and china jar. Then there are the mismatched but coordinated chairs, arabesque wall moldings, parquet floor. Oh, and look in the mirror: aren't those Venetian blinds in the reflected window?
Mirrors, of course, are always suggestive. They lead into mysterious spaces not quite seen or into infinite regress, reverses, angles. In fiction, literal mirrors offer opportunities for descriptions, as when a character looks into one and studies his or her face. As embedded imagery, they can suggest reversals in fortune or point to asymmetries (it's the break in a pattern that often leads to a story). They can play into themes of refraction.
This particular mirror offers an illusion: It looks like we are seeing through to a window in the next room, which is clearly lit by outdoor light, and yet it must be reflecting the wall behind us.
So which feature is most suggestive to you? All that old-gold wall space? The mirror? the commode? the tout ensemble? And if you are present in the room, are you the owner, a visitor, a servant, artist, thief? Does it suggest a story, or do you simply want to back out away from the luxury and power it implies? In writing Where the Light Falls, I used Walter Gay's paintings to imagine Cornelia Renick's house and a painting by Jeanette. Now it's your turn.

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