Joan of Arc: The one good painting

Today I’m in bed with some kind of food poisoning.

I submit that any artist’s rendition of Joan of Arc cannot be fully realized unless she looks like she’s somewhere between fainting outright and knifing a guy.


(Boldfaced agitprop - so typical of this motif as to be a distillation - by otherwise sublime painter, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.)


(Jules Bastien-Lepage: at it again.)

In my queasy rumination around portrayals of Joan of Arc and art history, I browsed Google image results to refresh my memory. A few things became quickly apparent:

Joan of Arc paintings are consistently bad. The thought of a girl-child leading grown men is apparently a popular target for projection and trite treatment by a whole succession of male painters. This is a motif repeated so often it could form its own genre: one mainly defined by gauzy nationalism and a stiff femininity requiring the general attitude that one must never leave the house without brushing one’s hair 100 strokes. Needless to say, Joan was never that kind of girl.*

Most obviously, she was a peasant: her family was poor, and she couldn’t read. The burnished armor and gilt-laden swords in most portrayals are saccharine fantasy—propaganda for a state which, during her lifetime, only saw fit to have her burn.

This is where Lepage’s rendition stands out: not only for its framing, but for its content. The barefoot child in the wood is an image more true. Lepage’s Joan is a person clearly at the edge of motion, inculcate and one with their faith, yet perhaps not entirely well either. Her face is mottled by dirt or sun, but glows with youth. Nothing exists but what is real to her. This Joan looks to be someone capable of absolutely anything—and that is precisely how any image of Joan should be.

That’s not all that’s special about this image. The painting is about vision, to be sure, and here we get the sense that this Joan of Arc is one as well as has them—while, specifically, the paint-handling dealt in the background of the image shows Lepage in full plumage.

The background is an illusionistic picture field, an abstracted mirage which seems to imply a profound reality just behind the field of view. Paint does not move, yet the implication of motion—of life just beneath color—infuses the piece. This also signals a sort of unreality; one in which we are never quite sure if what we are seeing is only what Joan sees, or what is truly there. Is she in a garden, or is she in a prison cell—the only garden being her mind? The holy phantasm abstracts in from the left. The scene is painted with a deftness echoed in the virtuosic works of contemporary painters Anne Gale or even Zoey Frank. This is achieved using a method painters call “broken color”, an Impressionist standby, yet put toward—in Lepage’s case—novel ends.

Joan of Arc paintings are simply never this good.

Let’s see it one more time:

Anne Gale

Zoey Frank

I’m off to drink electrolytes and watch The Princess Bride for the millionth time.

In art and dubious pasta consumption,


*Given her penchant for wearing men’s clothing during a period where this was strictly forbidden—a stubborn habit which persisted even on pain of death—and a now-expanded cultural vocabulary around gender, one may reasonably question whether Joan was a girl at all. If she lived today, she may well be trans. To keep things simple, here we've stuck with tradition. Don’t @ me on this.

Greymatter: Or something like it

I once made a newsletter called Greymatter. I began writing it when I realized that in catching up with friends, I was frequently asked what art I could recommend - and we would spend the rest of our time together going down the list with folks taking excited notes.

If all your friends know you’re an artist, this is a likely problem. I thought I could probably visit with my friends in a more even way if I wrote all the recommendations down for their reference—and then nobody would have to take notes. So I did. It worked a treat. A friend even helped me name the newsletter.

Art—rather like life—is a holistic system. Even Picasso’s wildly popular Cubism owes a widely unpopularized debt to African artists. It seemed to me that any artist who has claimed to be an island was probably very wrong… and the apparent impulse to make such claims is perplexing. It has always been far more interesting to look at a real ecosystem rather than some tired myth of a lone genius.

Start with a book—and a book leads one to a painting, to an album, to a film. Pretty soon the newsletter had those things, too.

I stopped sending Greymatter despite what I am told was a high open rate (~70-80%) because it felt like busy-work in the context of the service I used to draft it. Substack feels lighter - pared down, airy. As with many things now, I only intend to do this if I like doing it. So, here goes - once more, and perhaps again.

I hope this brings beauty to your door as summer fades.

The Long Look

Click the image to see more about the artist.

Etel Adnan

Matthew Stone
Njideka Akunyili Crosby

The Nightstand

The Wounded Storyteller
by Arthur W. Frank


  • I began reading The Wounded Storyteller months ago and I’m taking my time. Every second or third paragraph something is written which is deeply true, keenly well-researched, and at times startling in its illumination. I set the book down, digest, and pick it up again, my breath in my throat. For anyone interested in a complex and humanist text around the body… look here.

Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living
by Anne Dufourmantelle


  • The English translation might miss some of the nuance and cleverness of the original French, yet this quote serves as a compelling recommendation:
    “[Gentleness is] … power that is also soft, nobility that is also humble, sweetness that is also intelligent, subtlety that is nevertheless striking, fragility that has the potential to subvert the status quo.” I submit that we would do well to hold this kind of thinking close to us in the times ahead.

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
by Jenny Odell

  • Anything with ‘resist’ and ‘economy’ in the title will delight my dirty socialist’s heart, yet this text in particular seems positioned to also make it sing. Odell does the work of relating one influence to the next, charting a course for some which may, to others, feel less like pioneerism and more like a homecoming. If you’re already a fan of the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, this text seems to set its bullseye in relating some of the same indigenous frameworks to the urban settler set using terms they might already understand… and bless, it’s needed.

The Library

The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations
by Toni Morrison


  • Upon reading the first three paragraphs I set off joyously cussing through the house, book in hand: she’s just that good. Her brilliance is generous, as it always was—her wisdom at once timeless and starkly relevant. Nothing I can say is enough. You don’t need me to tell you this, but for whoever does needs to hear it: this is a must-read, must-own, must-revisit-indefinitely.
    May she rest in power.

Studio Sounds

Aromanticism - Moses Sumney

  • By this time, Moses Sumney is beginning to get some real attention - as well he should. Vocals are gorgeous, virtuosic, and entirely unselfconscious (even if the lyrics may demur)—I find myself mumble-humming ‘My wings are made of plastic’ as I mix colors in the studio. The music videos for this album are Art, with sequences which would not be out of place in video installation in a white box gallery: thematically complex, at times emotionally conflicting - a fascination. Don’t sleep on this.

And a new, infrequent category…

The Moving Frame

iTunesPrime Video

I saw FAST COLOR before knowing much about it - which could be shortly explained by the fact this awe-filled film only opened in 25 theaters total. It is mind-boggling that such an effervescent work could be so overlooked - and yet that seems a theme in a year like 2019, in which people who believe in goodness get knocks.

Here, however, all that’s gold stays: this film brings every beat home. As soon as I saw it, I immediately watched it again. When I heard some critics panned this film, I had to wonder: Do they have souls? Do they hate their mothers? Are they, perhaps less overtly, someone who is only happy when a cast conforms to irrationally limited ideas of what [super]heroes should look like?

These questions and their answers pale in comparison to the sublime, elemental, fiercely beating heart of the work.

Until next time - in art and resilience,


Found Object: Conversations with artistic works, and you

But first: some context

After I got sick, everything changed… and then, when I started to get better, everything changed again.

In the past I’ve said it was as though I went to sleep and woke to a house in which all the furniture had moved overnight. I had to find new names for the relationships of the objects to each other, as their motions were new — their shapes, unfamiliar.

This is an attempt to put name to that motion… to feel out the form of these new surroundings. This is a journey into the studio practice as it carries forward, in community with people who may not live in my city, or perhaps people who, like me, find their environments - and selves - somehow changed.

Some things to know:

  1. This is an experiment!

  2. The format will shift. Sometimes it will be similar to my old newsletter, in which I listed art, books, and music I was interested in — this had an 80% open rate, to my surprise, so it seems people liked it. Other times it will be more conversational, or more experimental, or perhaps just in-progress pieces [art, writing, music] from the studio.

  3. I have an intense aversion to social media and the fact that I appear anywhere at all is a painful act of resistance. Yes, I do have a therapist and no, I am not sure this is tractable. Consequently: A conversation with friends — in which I can just talk about what I’m thinking about, which is usually the work — is about as close to Internet Openness as I might get. This is one attempt.

Oh yeah. There will also be pictures of dogs.


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