Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph,ca. 1495, Oil on poplar, 65.4 x 184.2 cm

As much as I love looking at art, it is a rare experience for me to come undone in front of a painting. On a recent art viewing trip to London I walked through the National Gallery exclaiming––mainly to myself, but occasionally out loud––with awe and delight at the painting collection. What a dream to be in a room with three Pieros, the large Uccello battle scene, and the Uccello Saint George and the Dragon, a reproduction of which has been tacked up in my studio for many years. I nearly grabbed the nearest visitor to share my stunned appreciation when I walked into a hall full of Venetian paintings, including the remarkable Four Allegories of Love by Veronese; I kept repeating OMG! OMG! I felt this deep pleasure, this wonder, in room after room, in seeing painting after painting.

Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (detail), ca. 1495

But only one painting moved me to tears: Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph. There I was, standing in front of this beautiful, tender, poignant painting, unable to stop weeping. It may be that my feelings were very close to the surface from seeing so many great paintings, but there was something in the emotional restraint, the simply rendered, clear form, the elongated horizontal format, the loving attention to flora and fauna, and the deep space opening out behind the three foreground figures, that was incredibly touching. A quietly sitting dog––a white patch on his ear, a black patch on his back, making him a specific individual––looks on mournfully. Then there are the gestures: the satyr’s hand on the nymph’s shoulder, his right hand openly caressing her forehead; as she lies on the ground, the nymph’s hands: one curled in an awkward position, the other an open palm; her beautifully sandaled feet are crossed; gossamer drapery flows over her body. Her face seems to show that she is resting calmly, yet we see delicate traces of blood on her neck, arm, and hand. All lead to a feeling of grace; grace as in a fluid beauty, as in a blessing.

Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (detail), ca. 1495

Scholars thought that the story was that of the mythological tale of Procris accidentally killed by her husband. This supposition was supported by the long, narrow size of the painting, which indicated it might have served as a panel on a bridal chest, but the National Gallery doesn’t accept this interpretation since the original tale from Ovid does not mention a satyr. Whatever the story’s origin, there is something magical in the painting’s heightened attention to every detail, details which are not naturalistic, but a step removed, towards imagination; it is a tactile representation rather than a perceptual one.

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Blue and White, 1935, Oil on canvas, 41 x 38 inches, Image courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum

Thinking of this narrative painting made me wonder: are human figures, with their attendant human emotions, necessary in order to be moved by art? Then I remembered having a similar response to a Mondrian painting, Composition in Blue and White, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut several years ago. Its open space intersected by lines, its only color a small blue rectangle, touched me deeply, and I wept. It’s so difficult in these instances to truly understand the complexity of emotions, the why of them. But these experiences remind me that making art is not only a search for form, but is, at heart, a path to our emotions.

Altoon Sultan, Blue Circle, 2018, Egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches

Altoon Sultan is a New Yorker, Brooklyn born and bred, who now lives on an old hill farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where she makes art and tends her garden.