Owl Still Life


Homosassa, Florida, July 2021


In 2014, I visited the Orchard House, not for the first time but with a different perspective. For me, this visit is memorable not because it was Louisa May Alcott's house (I must admit I am one of the rare girls who has never read Little Women, though I have read her Hospital Sketches) but because it houses several paintings by her younger sister, May. To say that these paintings are extraordinary is, to me, an understatement. Specifically, "La Negresse," which was painted in 1879 and shown as her second entry into the Paris Salon, and "Owl Still Life" also painted that year, and shown at the Ladies Exhibition in London. I bought post cards and framed them. The images stay with me like few others.


May was not in Concord that year, painting these works, but she might as well have been as Ralph Waldo Emerson sat in his study, literally across the street from the Orchard House, writing one of his last essays. Perhaps he was thinking of those elements of a life well-lived, fading into the background. In "The Preacher," he draws a very straight, very solid line along which the senses can pull along the reverence of a vanishing Spirit and expel it Whole through May's fingertips onto her canvas.


Perhaps he was reminded, as I am, of the question he asked in his essay "The Poet" written thirty-five years earlier. "What is Beauty? . . . This great Whole the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt. It may be produced. But it cannot be defined." I look at this photo, and I answer, this is beauty. This is something so big I can hardly grasp its significance. I took this photo, but I cannot begin to comprehend how it turned out so extraordinary.

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