In this excerpt from “Christmas Holiday” by W. Somerset Maugham (1939), Charley and Lydia are at the museum looking at a still-life by Chardin (pages 240-242).
“Chardin,” he said. “Yes, I’ve seen that before.”
“But have you ever looked at it?”
“Oh, yes. Chardin wasn’t half a bad painter in his way. My mother thinks a lot of him. I’ve always rather liked his still lifes myself.”
“Is that all it means to you? It breaks my heart.”
“That?” cried Charley with astonishment. “A loaf of bread and a flagon of wine? Of course it’s very well painted.”
“Yes you’re right; it’s very well painted; it’s painted with pity and love. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the bread of life and the blood of Christ, but not held back from those who starve and thirst for them and doled out by priests on stated occasions; it’s the daily fare of suffering men and women. It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it’s the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work an eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. The ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of win; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love, the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.”
Lydia’s voice was tremulous and now the tears flowed from her eyes. She brushed them away impatiently.
“And isn’t it wonderful that with those simple objects with his painter’s exquisite sensibility, moved by the charity in his heart, that funny dear old man should have made something so beautiful that it breaks you? It was as though, unconsciously perhaps, hardly knowing what he was doing, he wanted to show you that if you only have enough love, if you only have enough sympathy, out of pain and distress and unkindness, out of all the evil of the world, you can create beauty.”
She was silent and for long stood looking at the little picture. Charley looked at it too, but with perplexity. It was a very good picture; he hadn’t really given it more than a glance before, and he was glad Lydia had drawn his attention to it; in some odd way it was rather moving; but of course he could never have seen in it all she saw. Strange, unstable woman! It was rather embarrassing that she should cry in a public gallery…
…“Shall we go now?” she said.
“But don’t you want to see any more pictures?”
“Why? I’ve seen one. I feel happy and peaceful. What could I get if I saw another?”From “Christmas Holiday” (1939) W. Somerset Maugham; Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
When you traipse through an art gallery or a museum, are you a Charley or a Lydia? The difference struck me deeply. To think that looking at a picture could “break” you! How much we let go by without looking! Of course we can’t see everything, but if we could just see one thing, and see it and feel as deeply as Lydia, then we would not need to see more.
I searched and searched for the picture Maugham was speaking of, and the closest one I found was this one pictured above, which is now attributed to an imitator of Chardin. Does it matter? I think not. Maugham got his point across brilliantly.
Thank you for posting this piece from Maugham. I recently wrote about how art differs from information (http://www.theunpackagedeye.com/about-the-blog/) but this reminds me–who is doing the perceiving matters as much as how the information or art is presented. I wonder what makes a person a Charley or a Lydia? Is it innate, or is sensitivity to art learned? And how is it learned, if it is learned? And when people have learned it can we say that they have “better” taste than those who haven’t?
Maugham makes the difference between the two very clear in the book. Charley has lived a cosseted upper-class life and has never suffered. Whereas Lydia is a Russian emigre living in poverty and has suffered greatly, i.e., felt deeply.
In my opinion, being informed about paintings does not guarantee sensitivity which comes from the heart, and not the mind. Charley has been taught what is tasteful and what is not, but he hasn’t a clue about what is “beautiful.” He has never had to think deeply about anything.
True art, as with true beauty, has nothing to do with what we call “taste.”
Lydia sees with her soul. Charley has only his eyes, and what others have told him.