Friday, March 20, 2009

A Museum of Flowers

As we walked around the lake near my house, my sister-in-law said, "They really ought to have museums with only beautiful pictures of flowers and landscapes." I told her about the painting of Rachel Weeping and how I began to weep in the museum the other day. She was there too, of course. She said, "I was afraid you had seen it." She was good to talk to. She listened, she nodded, she told me stories about women who had survived the death of their children. When she said that there should be a museum of just flower paintings, I agreed at the time. Yes, only Monet, Renoir, Pissarro. It sounded like a good plan. Only safe paintings. Only paintings that don't make babylost mamas cry. They shouldn't hang pieces like Prometheus Bound, which also hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When we saw it in the European collection, she said,"Did you see Prometheus Bound?" And I said, "Yes. I totally forgot that hung here. It is magnificent." She laughed, embarrassed, because I think she was about to say how disgusting it was. And it is hard to look at an eagle eating a man's liver. It is graphic. But it is also spectacular. Spectacularly horrific, but spectacular. Is this part of my personality that was here before? Probably. I have always loved Greek mythology, and the macabre, and well, that painting has it all.

The past few days since the museum trip, I have thought about it long and hard. Even though, I wish that we had some sort of babylost guide book, much like a morbid Lonely Planet, that warns us about paintings in museums; particularly baby-filled parks; scenes in movies that involve childbirth, miscarriage, stillbirth, cot death, death of anything innocent, young or child-like, or particularly touching scenes involving mothers and/or fathers; desperately coded songs where we might hear our own heartbreak present; and anything else likely to take our breath away, make our knees shake and send us into uncontrolled crying in front of visiting guests and strangers, I still think the painting Rachel Weeping needs to hang in the Museum of Art, even if it made me cry. I think it is desperately important for it to exist. So, I have catalogued the reasons why, as my brain is wont to do:

1. and/or A. In Peale's time, there was probably no place for men to talk of the sadness over the loss of his baby, and his wife's unhappiness. Painting it, perhaps, was his way to communicate how important and very sad this event was to him and his family. Perhaps it was his only emotional outlet. I dare say that is probably exacerbated by how prevalent stillbirth was in his time.

2. and/or B. Stillbirth and child loss is unfortunately part of our lives. To pretend we only have flowers, girls by rivers, and portraits of rich European girls in fancy dress means ignoring part of the human experience. We babylost mamas are already in the closet, must art also shield the world from our grief?

3. and/or C. Flower paintings are boring.

4.and/or D. This painting is entitled Rachel Weeping. Not Baby Lying There Dead. This painting is about our pain. This painting is about our grief. This painting is outing us in the American Collection. It is all about the Babylost Mama. About us. About Women. About all Mothers. Flowers are not about us. Flowers are about someone else, someone maybe we once were, but are no longer. Flower paintings are about pretending the world is a beautiful place. Flower painting are about pretending our babies don't die, and we are not sad. Flower paintings are for wimps.

5. and/or E. When we want to show pictures of our beautiful children in a room full of mothers who have pictures of their newborns yawning, we don't. We protect those mothers from our children, from our babies with their peeling skin, and red red lips. So, let us call this painting beautiful. Let us call this gray child cute, stunning even. Let us look for her father's nose,and her mother's lips. Let us hang Rachel Weeping front and center of the American collection, not behind a tall boy dresser. Let us think Rachel Weeping is more beautiful than a painting of flowers. And if forced to stare at painting after painting of cut flowers, let us remember that those flowers are dying too.

6.and/or F. Of the thousands of works hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there was one that I saw dealing with stillbirth. One. Rachel Weeping. I cannot even remember how many flower paintings I saw. I also can only specifically remember the contents of one, which is Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and that is simply by dint of its celebrity. Does our society repress death so much that one painting of a dead baby is too many?

7. and/or G. And the most important reason: Rachel, we will not forget your baby.


  1. This was beautiful Angie. You are so new to this game, but already so wise about your thoughts and feelings. Big love to you xo

  2. I agree with Sally - you write so beautifully.
    I think there should be more paitings like this one - beautiful, devastatingly sad, and real. Just like life.

  3. Someone, can't remember who, said there was an exhibit on photographing death in the 19th century at some museum, and while many photos were civil war soldiers, many were babies and children. It was as if society (well, upper middle class society -- let's not kid ourselves, Peale's not painting the chamber maid) finally got the means to remember.

    I think my problem with the guide is that really inconspicuous inane things trip me up. Things that go unremarked on, I'm guessing, by many of y'all. And I'm sure vice versa. sometimes you don't realize something's going to hit you in the solar plexus until it walks up and does. A friend once warned me of the miscarriage theme in the book "Time Traveler's Wife" when she heard I was reading it for book club, and I hated the book so much I started laughing at the insanity by the time I got to that portion. Someone else I'm sure was curled up on the couch wailing.

    I think at the time people were really disturbed by Monet (as an example) because it wasn't *real* -- it was kinda blurry. It's not just flowers, it's beauty in his mind's eye, taking real and turning it a bit on it's side. In Peale's time, that simply meant putting another theme altogether front and center.

    Great post.

  4. Wonderful post. Thinking about what Tash said- I think that the modern eye is freaked out by "Rachel Weeping" because people don't want to know that babies die and parents grieve. But jewelry made with your loved one's hair, memento mori, funeral photos- were all so commonplace for years as to not be hung in museums at all- they were worn next to people's hearts, displayed in the home, carried with us as we mourned. Monet, Picasso, and all the rest were so unusual and offputting that they had to be put in a special place so people could go see them and be shocked and moved.

    So I think there's another reason why we need "Rachel Weeping" at the museum- because our culture has lost the sacred but everyday space that mamas like Rachel would have had to share heir grief with their visitors, their families, and themselves.

  5. I am taking my girls to the art Museum tomorrow. Thank you Angie x

  6. Beautiful post, Angie. I must go to the museum next time I'm in Philly and see this painting. Lots of love to you.

  7. beautifully written post all the other mamas have said already. wise and true words. i loved this -'flower paintings are about pretending the world is a beautiful place. Flower painting are about pretending our babies don't die, and we are not sad. Flower paintings are for wimps' and then i laughed out loud when i read 'flowers are boring'. i'm glad that you haven't lost your sense of humor in all this babyloss grief.

    much love to you


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