This New York Times photograph – which Roger Thomas handed to me during a recent flight to Los Angeles – describes everything I love about painting. I sat staring at this newspaper print, with the haunting face of a pale young man staring just past me by way of the masterful Andrea Del Sarto. I next noticed the gentle creases of his crimson robe, the soft play of light on his body, the striking desolation of the background.
But the narrow fingers of his left hand appeared oddly displaced as they hold his chalice, and I began to daydream about how the image of two or three fingers together would be more aesthetically pleasing in paint than these two separate ones. It occurred to me that every single brush stroke is a flirtation with permanence, and that the fun of reading a painting is taking note of the artistic decisions that led to a piece’s completion.
I meditated on the fingers, but then I moved to the lines of the young Baptist’s face, the lovingly delicate lines of his muscles, the mysterious dark beyond him, and the sense that the scratchy, dimly lighter regions on the upper corners of the painting begin to intimate not distinct forms over his shoulder, but that he is at least not alone.The young man is stoic and strong in the face of a bleak world behind, but there is hope too, and there is light shining towards him.
These remarkable details – triumphant or tentative – were deliberately cast into pigment nearly five hundred years ago, and through them we can still glimpse deeply into the mind of a long-dead man. Not just an expression of beauty: this painting is a window into this artist’s process, ability, and soul. And so, staring at this newsprint of a 16th Century Florentine masterpiece, I realized everything I love about paintings.