Letter from the Lake: It’s not yet the summer solstice here at Wrighter Lake, 180 miles (more or less) and 180 degrees (for sure) from downtown Princeton. I have managed to open the cottage successfully, to draw water from the lake to the pump house, fix another broken water pipe, and assume a position on the front porch looking out to the lake and the band of cottages a few hundred yards across the inlet on which we sit.
It’s sunset, a prolonged one as we approach the longest day of the year, and I watch the images across the lake as they absorb the oblique angles of light. An ordinary Adirondack chair is transposed into a shimmering green image; the weather-worn wood steps leading from a dock to the lawn above begin to glow in the light.
“It’s Monet,” I announce to the world around me. No one argues.
Maybe they would if they knew the extent of my ignorance of fine art. I took Art 101 at Princeton, in the first year that the university ever offered any course on a pass-fail basis. And a boatload of us academic slackers eyed Art 101 as a “gut” that we could cruise through with a minimum of effort, worrying only whether we passed or failed.
The word among us slackers was that you only needed to turn in a single term paper and that the final exam was a mere formality in which you commented on a few pieces of art. I produced a rather successful paper on Edgar Degas and his proclivity for retouching his pieces so obsessively that people who bought his paintings sometimes didn’t want him to visit their homes — for fear that he would ruin the work of art they had already purchased.
Buoyed by that success, I coasted through the rest of the course. A few days before the final I asked a classmate, who had been attending lectures faithfully, if the final was going to be as easy as advertised. Oh yes, he said. All you have to know is Janson — the massive “History of Art” by H.W. Janson, all 572 pages of it — and the several hundred works of art mentioned in the lectures that were on display through prints located in the art study room of the Princeton Art Museum. Oh, and the final would count as much as that paper we had turned in earlier.
I gulped. Hard. For 40 of the next 48 hours I pored over Janson and peered at the images posted in the art study room. I memorized the essence of Monet: French, late 19th century, father of the Impressionist movement, named after his landmark work, “Impression, Sunrise,” painted in 1872.
And I figured out how to differentiate Monet from Manet, as in Edouard Manet, also French but younger than Monet, a painter who influenced Monet but one whose own work was more realistic, the light more stark than the Impressionists’ work. Manet’s innovative 1863 painting, “The Luncheon on the Grass,” featuring the shocking juxtaposition of two nude women seated among a group of properly dressed gentlemen, has been reproduced by sculptor Seward Johnson at the Grounds For Sculpture. Forty years ago I could not have foreseen that, but I certainly had the painting’s name, rank, and serial number committed to memory.
The day of reckoning came. The professor, Jonathan Brown (a name I will never forget), kicked off the exam with the slide show of art works. I can’t remember exactly which paintings were presented at that exam, but one of them might have been the Monet. My confidence must have soared as Brown put the image up on the screen and then crashed as the professor declared everything I knew: Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” painted in 1872. But wait, I thought, he’s giving away the answer. No. He was just setting up the question — something like “compare and contrast Monet’s use of color with three artists whose work influenced him.”
Ouch. The other slackers and I were being hung out to dry. Brown presented the art works, posed the questions, and then left the room in accordance with Princeton’s undergraduate honor code and tradition of unproctored exams. After he was gone, the sound of another final exam tradition could be heard — 24 ounce bottles of beer began popping throughout the hot exam room. A few weeks later I got my grade: F.
Forty-plus years later, in the soft glow of the setting sun, I view the present through this rose-colored lens. What if I had taken that art course more seriously? What if I had taken enough interest to appreciate the business of art? Would I have been covering the present-day controversy in which the curator of ancient art at the Princeton Art Museum stands accused by a Roman prosecutor of “the illegal export and laundering” of antiquities looted from Italian sites and then “sold, donated, or lent” to the Princeton Art Museum?
But the point of being at the lake is to think about a lot of possibilities, and to act on very few of them. The Italian investigation of the Art Museum sounds like a terrific story, I think from my lakeside vantage point. But probably not right for me, the guy who got an F in Art 101.
I glance back across the water. The sun has fallen lower yet in the western sky. The view to the east is not what I saw just a few minutes ago. Perhaps Professor Brown has introduced a new slide.
I sweep my arm in the direction of the eastern shore, and announce — in the most authoritative tone I can muster: “Monet has given way to Manet.” No one argues.
Meet the Writers. U.S. 1 is hosting an old-fashioned book-signing reception next Wednesday, June 16, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Tre Piani restaurant at Princeton Forrestal Village. We will salute entrepreneur and citizen astronaut Greg Olsen and technical writer and editor Tom Lento on their new book, “By Any Means Necessary — An Entrepreneur’s Journey into Space” (U.S. 1, June 2).
All writers, would-be writers, and interested readers are invited to this free event. We will provide some hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar will be open. But mostly we will be presenting some food for thought on books and book publishing.