Things Left Undone

Altar in a Baroque Church by Adolph Menzel / Photos courtesy of the Met

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, an exhibition at the Met Breuer, is filled with curiosities.

Take, for instance, the 1775 portrait of a Spanish noblewoman by Anton Raphael Mengs. The subject sits in a chair, resplendent in a silk dress and fur-lined coat. The sumptuous fabric, for which the sitter undoubtedly paid a tidy sum in order to impress viewers with her status, is not what draws the eye or raises eyebrows today. At some point the sitter’s face was blurred, her distinguishing features reduced to ghostly black shadows cast on opaque flesh. She looks rather like a bank robber wearing pantyhose over her head. The sitter’s lapdog was traced but never painted, leaving a pug-shaped outline of raw wood panel in the middle of the portrait, surrounded on all sides by the rich colors and textures of a finished oil painting.

Mind the Gap

Marcus Aurelius

How many readers of this online newspaper, the content of which changes by the minute and which largely focuses on current events, will have the time or inclination to read Peter Adamson’s “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” (as his sub-title has it) that covers the period from after Plato and Aristotle to the death of St. Augustine? Probably not many, despite the fact that it’s clearly written, sprinkled with cute allusions to our day as well as with groan-inducing puns—yet also full of clear summaries of the main points of thinkers who once were household names. Read a history of philosophy? Most of us have too many other concerns, with rents or mortgages, maybe kids to get to school (or their tuition to be paid), deadlines to meet, dry-cleaning to pick up. Philosophy, it seems, is just too abstract to matter.

Henry James in Awe

Henry James

As a child, Henry James displayed a precocious ability to “gape,” but little else. A collection of autobiographical writings published by the Library of America, comprised of three full-scale autobiographical pieces and other revealing scribblings, indicates that the novelist possessed the sort of genius that shows itself in unconventional ways.

In the first of the self-portraits, A Small Boy And Others, James writes self-deprecatingly of his educational aptitude compared to that of his brother, the renowned 19th-century philosopher William James.