Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds

In nature, there is a peculiar parasite known as a roundworm. Now, there are several thousand different types of roundworms, one of which is referred to as a nematode. What makes this microscopic creature so unique is its deceptive means of perpetuating the species. Basically, the nematode perches itself on a branch or leaf where ants are known to frequent. As the ants come by and discover the roundworm, they are quick to consume it. This might all sound rather anticlimactic but it gets better . . . a lot better.

The nematode doesn't die. Filled with its own eggs and now inside the ant, it is very much alive and situates itself into the abdomen. As it settles inside, the ant's backside begins to turn bright red. Over the years, scientists have suggested that this isn't so much a sign of infection but rather an after-effect of the parasite, and done in an attempt to make the ant more appealing to passing birds. If the ant is brighter and ends up spotted by a bird and is consumed, the parasitic species will continue on. For you see, once the ant is digested, the eggs are harmlessly released into the bowels of the bird which then dispenses the growing larvae through defecation.

Why the gross analogy about this parasite? Because what good can come from deception? Aside from compromising integrity in humans, deception leaves a wake of destructive circumstances to which others will eventually fall victim. The argument can be made that momentary success could be experienced if deception is utilized, but for the most part, it won't last and chances are others have had to endure sudden and unfair consequences.

The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), depicts a scene in which two women are playing cards with a gentleman. Not much a gentleman, though, as the viewer can clearly see he is producing two Aces from behind his belt during a moment of distraction. Furthermore, and ever so intriguing, is the intense setting in which all of this is taking place. Clearly, the maidservant, the courtesan in the middle, and the female on the right are all showing some sign of nervousness and suspicion.

It can be said that the fair lady on the right is a bit oblivious to the deception that is unfolding when you consider her emotionless, somewhat dimwitted expression. Yet, I would argue that de La Tour was suggesting she was about to catch on based upon her gaze. For the rest of the scene, a lot can be offered up for questioning and interpretation. Does the maidservant know what's going on? Is she in on the con? Appearing to offer the courtesan a fresh glass of wine, I would suggest she is either nervously involved or doing her best to conceal the deceiver on the left. Knowing this era, the courtesan is obviously someone of great wealth and/or influence given her intricate hairstyle and provocative clothing. But is she really being duped? Or is she strong enough and smart enough to smell a con? Is she about to fully realize what is going on and take action? Lastly, and admittedly a bit of a stretch on my part, is the male deceiver actually a male or a female in disguise?

What a few fans of 14th and 15th Century French art may not know is that this is a later version of the original painting, The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs. When comparing the two paintings, one can clearly see a less ambiguous scene in the Clubs version as opposed to the Diamonds version.  In the Clubs, the male has facial hair and a much more dastardly stare in his eyes; the maidservant's eyes are less obvious implying she may only be sheepish about interrupting the game by serving the wine. As well, the female on the right sits with a somewhat dumbfounded grin on her face and appears to be looking off the table as if none the wiser. These distinct differences suggest that the intended theme of the painting was to be much more straight forward. When the Diamonds version was revealed, however, further mystery into what was being presented became obvious, and gave you and I--the audience--a chance to really run amok with our interpretations.

Should you get the chance to compare the two paintings side-by-side, relish the opportunity! It is not often such subtle changes in art can be clearly seen and felt. What also makes this an extremely entertaining piece is the chance to speculate and wonder; the chance to dig into our ability to interpret art, and the evocation of theme and emotion. Much like every other piece of art I've attempted to write about, this one too reveals a chance to learn a little bit more about life. Because, in essence, we've all been deceived merely by the first iteration of this masterpiece. In this case, though, I'm willing to accept de La Tour's con with open arm or arms.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles

Do you ever look in the mirror at yourself and ponder about your life?  Standing there naked, completely vulnerable to everyone but no one, you face you without any other element of life to skew who you are, what you look like, where you are going, or where you have been.

It is difficult to not be philosophical in this moment.

Life is wrought with ups and downs.  Each of us moves along our own path through life and along the way, we will inevitably encounter others.  And in that course, we'll inevitably encounter others who have their own perspectives and "words of wisdom" based upon their experiences on their path.  I think one thing in common we all have are those moments where we stop to gaze upon ourselves to contemplate who we have become.  Questions about success, attractiveness, and appeal begin to swirl inside our heads and for some, it's enough to reach out to someone we trust to see if we can gain a new perspective.

For each of us, there will almost always be someone else who expresses true satisfaction with who he or she is.  But I find myself wondering, isn't he or she human just like me?  Doesn't he or she also doubt past choices?  Questions motives?  Wonders, what if?

What if?

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is thought to be the painting of an Italian actor named Belloni though some scholars and critics have felt it was a self portrait of the artist himself.  The painting was originally titled Gilles but was later changed to Pierrot to better portray the subject matter.  It was bequeathed to the Louvre in 1869 where the indicated title was applied.

Standing awkwardly on a mound in the middle and just above the perspective of the viewer is a comic actor who is surrounded by his stage compatriots.  Each seems preoccupied either by the donkey, something off in the distance, or with the silliness of the circumstance.  This particular piece is yet another example of what you initially see isn't exactly what may truly be going on.  Upon first glance, one could surmise that the Pierrot in the middle is standing at stage attention as if about to enact a scene.  Of course, I'm one who has to take a deeper, more meaningful look at the man's face and eyes and I see something different.

I see a troubled man.  Someone who is not completely content with his life or being the center of attention.  His face seems to be puffed up as if to imply he's on the verge of tears.  And his eyes tell me he's desperate for relief.

This is an incredibly powerful, enigmatic, and provocative piece.  Though our subject seems to sport a slight grin, is wearing what could be determined as fine garments not meant for those with lesser success, and is surrounded by others who share in his accolades, I can't help but feel sorry for him based upon my own perspectives.  I am sure most who would encounter this man would cheer his accomplishments and praise his work but for me, I see the face of a man staring at himself naked in the mirror and wondering how he got to where he is.

And that's just it.  Levels of success will always be relative.  I cannot specifically recall ever meeting someone who has become what he or she truly wanted to be.  There might be some out there who claim to but honestly, we're all humans, we all make mistakes, and along the way, our paths could very well diverge in a new direction and away from what was originally desired.  In moments like the one captured in this painting, there is no sense of failure or depression, just a moment of utter disappointment and pondering of what could have become.  What would his life be had he done this or that?

What if?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Declaration of Independence

Few people know that the United States of America was actually formed 235 years ago on July 2, 1776 when the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain.  Though independence was officially approved, it wasn't officially documented and announced until July 4, 1776 when the actual wording of the declaration document was completed and signed.  Written mostly by Thomas Jefferson, the declaration gave an official recount for why the US was declaring independence and was created in reaction to the one year old American Revolutionary War.

Those who were present and signed the document were:  From Delaware, George Read, Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, from Pennsylvania, George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, John Morton, Benjamin Rush, George Ross, James Smith, James Wilson, George Taylor, from Massachusetts, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, from New Hampshire, Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, from Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, from New York, Lewis Morris, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, William Floyd, from Georgia, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton, from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, Thomas Nelson, Jr., from North Carolina, William Hooper, John Penn, Joseph Hewes, from South Carolina, Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Thomas Lynch, Jr., Thomas Heyward, Jr., from New Jersey, Abraham Clark, John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, from Connecticut, Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, and from Maryland, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca.

Below you will find two versions of the document, one is the original and the other is an official facsimile of the original document.  These documents are being featured because we are celebrating our great country's birthday and because the work of these men and this document are incredible feats and considered masterpieces.

The Original Document
 A Detailed Facsimile of the Original Document

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.