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Picturing a World


In The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club (p. 481), Christopher de Hamel reports that Belle da Costa Greene " had a miniature portrait of herself painted in 1910 wrapped in apricot silk like an odalisque of the Middle East, explaining it to [Bernard] Berenson as showing 'the Belle of one of my former incarnations — Egyptienne.'" The artist, Laura Coombs Hills, was an exact contemporary of the real Jeanette Smith, which was enough to interest me in her. For her part, Greene was the great librarian of medieval manuscripts for J. Pierpont Morgan, an endlessly fascinating woman. And then I saw the portrait in its frame! Oh, that frame!

The breadth of gold makes the object flamboyant, a statement for sure, but of what? It's a vortex, a funnel; it causes the portrait to recede. We are drawn in to where its subject peers out at us and dares us to guess what she's thinking or who she really is, even while she proclaims herself special. Wouldn't you love to invent a character as grand?
As for Laura Coombs Hills' career—formal study in Boston, miniaturist, watercolorist, designer, painter of flowers, illustrator of children's books—if I ever go on to explore Jeanette Palmer Murer's life, you can bet I'll delve deeper into hers for ideas and inspiration.

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