When I was little, the only reference book we had in the house besides a dictionary, thesaurus, and atlas was the World Book Encyclopedia for children, an official-looking set bound in blue. On rainy and/or boring days I would flip through it, and even when I was very young and not all that interested in the text of the entries I’d look at the photos.
My favorites were two: “geology” and “art” (or was it “painting”? Don’t remember exactly).
The geology entry featured (as best I recall, anyway; those books have long since gone the way of my brother’s baseball cards) maps of the world or maybe the Western Hemisphere through time, showing how it had changed. I was entranced. The idea that solid land was so mutable both enthralled and frightened me.
The “art” category had full color plates featuring about thirty or so well-known paintings (although they certainly weren’t known to me until I looked at them, which probably started when I about was six or seven or so). The following two were my favorites—or at least they made the deepest impression, because I remember them, all these years later.
I didn’t know why I liked them so much. In fact, I was puzzled by it. The first one was a still life, a type of painting that ordinarily was of no interest to me back then (I preferred people or attractive landscapes; my grandmother had a number of these in her apartment that I was familiar with and liked, especially one of well-dressed courtiers of perhaps the eighteenth century, playing some game like checkers or chess, their silken or satin garments and fancy hairdos gleaming to show the painter’s skill).
The still life was by Cezanne, and it was very plain. I think this was the one but it could have been almost any of them:
When I look back and try to explain why it drew me in so much, I have to say that Cezanne’s still lifes are still one of my favorites types of painting. Even as a child, to me the fruit seemed to take on a universal quality, a Platonic Essence of Fruitness, roundness, solidity, and harmony in the world.
Here’s the other one, a Vermeer. At that time I wondered why I was so taken by it. After all, I thought the woman was ugly. She was thick, her dress was dull, the bread looked coarse (I’d never had anything other than white bread at the time). And yet the whole seemed almost inexpressibly beautiful. Timeless, essential, spiritual (although I don’t think I could have identified it that way).
Looking back, I think now that these paintings, so dissimilar on the surface, share something. I’m not sure how to describe it, but maybe I’ll just call it serenity and transcendence.