It really is too much to take in all at once. To think that I am standing on the same oak floors in front of the very checkout counter where Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas once stood buying art supplies…pastels most probably…just as I am doing! This sliver of a building across from the Seine has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1884 and has been frequented by artists, famous and otherwise, for generations. In spite of a computerized checkout and inventory system, it is plain that the building has not been modernized; the floors creak and an impossibly narrow wooden spiral staircase leads to the second floor, materials are organized, but crowded all together. Every tiny space is used and there is hardly enough room to walk. As I stand at the glass counter that lines one side of the shop considering whether or not to purchase outrageously expensive handmade pastels, I am jostled unexpectedly and turn to see who my shoulder has connected with. I catch my breath.
He is young, maybe late twenties, about 5’9”, with creamy, light caramel skin and black, slightly curly hair pulled tautly into a pony tail that does not hang loose but is instead caught up under its red wrap creating a loop of hair, an Asian Warrior look in spite of the escaping tendrils at his temples and the back of his neck that should look effeminate but don't. His features are finely drawn; a long, thin nose and a wide, expressive, perfectly-formed mouth that smiles easily. His eyes are, perhaps, green (it hard to tell in this light) and ringed with dark black lashes. He has small ears and in one there is a dangling earring of an unusual shape, silver with a red stone. He is quite slim, but not gaunt and holds himself straight, but not stiff, graceful in the way that a dancer or figure skater is graceful, fully aware of exactly how his body occupies the space. He is singularly beautiful. But even more engaging than his beauty is his sense of style, although the word seems much too superficial to describe the thoughtfulness and depth of self-knowledge that must have gone into his every choice of garment and accessory.
I am a woman of “a certain age” or more truthfully, of certain age, but the thrill that I felt at 18 of being so close to a beautiful young man is fresh to me in this very moment. Unlike my 18 year-old self, I take a quick inventory of my feelings. This feeling is not lust (I think I am still capable of lust, but this is not it) though I don’t rightly know what to call it. It seems to arise not from a sexual impulse, but from an aesthetic one.
I take in the crisp, long-sleeved, black shirt buttoned all the way to the mandarin collar, the fine, lightweight wool vest, also black, and then in spite of myself, my eyes move down to the thick black waistband with a red silk cord knotted in front and long, wide-legged trousers ending just above beautiful black leather boots. The trousers are made of a felted material and stand slightly away from his body like culottes, suggesting his legs beneath, but not revealing their outline. These are especially striking because so many of the young men I have seen here in Paris are wearing very tight pants, usually denim, that leave nothing whatsoever to the imagination. On the middle finger of his left hand there is a ring that covers almost the whole finger. It is silver set with onyx and hinged to allow movement of the finger. It is in the shape of a dragon. It is spectacular. At last, my eyes move back to his face. He is smiling at me. I say with profound appreciation, “Beautiful…perfect.” He says with great tenderness, “Thank you."
I finish my purchase of the expensive pastels (for now I simply have to have them), look around for my grown son, take his arm, and leave. But I can’t get the image of this young man out of my mind. As we are walking alongside the Seine, I tell my son about my experience emphasizing the aesthetics of the moment knowing he would appreciate it from that perspective because he, too, is an artist. I laughingly mention that if I had encountered this young man at 18, I would have been inexorably drawn to him and in so saying realize that in fact, I am, today… at this age …also inexorably drawn to him. The confidence, the eye for beauty, the poetry of carefully chosen ornament and graceful motion are, in fact, timeless.
Later, I am talking with my son about some art-related idea, and I bring up the image of the young man again. “Mom it’s been two days, and you are still talking about this guy. What’s the deal?” I am brought up short. Yes, indeed, what IS the deal?
At home, months later, I am still wondering. Is my abiding affair with the young’s man’s image about lost youth or is it saying something to me that I need to know as an artist? Something about style or, perhaps, beauty, or both?
I think of the over-used, slightly gushy term “Style Icon” and immediately the image of a well-known octogenarian New York style-setter comes to mind. I saw her in a recent magazine photo posed dramatically holding various feathered bird sculptures while wearing her signature huge black-rimmed glasses and pounds of exquisite turquoise jewelry hanging on her slight frame. She did not look like she had had “work done”, that thoroughly modern euphemism for the cosmetic surgery that is almost ubiquitous among the smart set of style icons. Her face was wrinkled and hugely expressive. She looked fantastic in every sense of the word.
Clearly, style has nothing to do with age or gender. But, what about resources? While it is true that both the young man and the octogenarian must have adequate resources to accomplish the images they have chosen, I think of my Aunt Kitty who was not rich or even well-off though when I was a child, I thought she was.
Aunt Kitty had Style. She hand-knitted her clothes (straight skirts and simple sweaters) in classy, neutral shades, wore her hair haphazardly twisted up on her head secured with tortoise shell chopsticks, and used no makeup. This was in the 1950's when shirtwaist dresses, stiff, salon-styled hair, and generously-applied, movie star make-up were the norm. She was very petite and had only three pieces of jewelry that I remember, a dramatic gold cuff bracelet on her right wrist, an enormous man’s watch with a broad brown leather strap on her left (other women were wearing dainty diamond or rhinestone-encrusted watches), and her wedding ring, and somehow, nothing else was needed. She wore the best leather shoes she could afford and had leather purses that emphatically did NOT match her shoes. She never looked over-dressed or under-dressed. She never looked uncomfortable. She always looked unique. I thought she was beautiful.
Because I am an artist and have always seen the world through aesthetic eyes, I have an interest in beauty; how it is defined and what it means. When I think about what these three people have in common, it is clear to me that each captured not only personal style but also beauty in a unique way. But that beauty, in truth, is less about the visual image than it is about the refusal to be aesthetically constrained by societal expectations and even more meaningfully, about the courage it takes to be exactly who one is without apology and with verve.
On reflection it seems to me that courage must be an essential ingredient of both style and beauty. At last I realize, it is the courage of the young man, expressed aesthetically in his dress and in his manner, that so engaged me and engages me still. This is the kind of courage I look for in my work as an artist. To paint, not what is expected, but what I truly see, to have the courage to be exactly who I am.