It was the intensity of her expression that arrested me: wild wide eyes absorbed by some otherworldly sight or sound. One arm awkward and outstretched (is she blind? I wondered), feet grasping the earth, she is caught between being propelled forward and fixed to the spot.
Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc is my favorite painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the work I return to most often anywhere. Years after the initial coup de foudre, I find the painting now no less striking. However, as I proceeded from student to professional artist, both my attitude towards and assessment of the work altered. I have, after twenty years, become intimate with Joan. We have a relationship. Each experience of looking carries with it the memory of first discovery, which affects the next viewing, and the next, up to the most recent. The work is a compendium of memories of seeing, a compilation of my different selves that stood before it. It has also become a personal record of failure: what I see now is what I failed to notice the times before.
For years, I saw nothing beyond the figure of Joan. Only when a friend declared her mutual admiration for the painting, but founded upon the wildness of the natural world matching the wildness of Joan’s expression, did I remember the figure of Joan had a context. When I next looked, in atonement, I concentrated on the lush wildlife threatening to spill out of the frame. Its fecundity, the slightly blurred rendering and even the disarray hinted at by the loosened bodice: the physical world is erotic. The tree limb above echoes the curve of her arm extending to fingers, while the sweep of her head follows the curve of the branching trunk. The colors of her clothes align her with teeming nature as though she is some overgrown shoot no different than the other vegetation planted in the garden.
In graduate school I absorbed the necessary vocabulary to negotiate with the final elements of the painting I hitherto ignored. I learned to understand painting as construction and I returned to Joan of Arc to attack critically. The cottage presents its face flat like a cutout and abstract. The wall’s sharp right edge shines like a blade and demarcates the canvas into two halves. The sharp vertical cuts through the out-of-focus quality of feathery foliage and plants. Hovering before the brilliant sunlit wall, the transparent figures of Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine materialize, barely perceptible. St. Michael’s glinting armor is camouflaged against the wall as he raises his sword; Joan’s gleaming bare arm lifts in response to his call to arms and continues the line of his sword. With feet rooted into the earth and torso yearning forward, she meets the line of the tree behind her to form an “X.” She is at a crossroads, historically and psychologically. Face feverish, Joan hears the call, but her body is reluctant to leave the physical world.
In the past, I ignored the presence of the saints but now I cannot help but be distracted by their appearance. They seem too insubstantial, certainly not the source of her ecstasy though she leans towards their voices; but by decoding the narrative I understand intellectually who they are. As I shift from the immediacy of purely experiencing the work to reading the work, I am taken out of directly sharing Joan’s rapture. The painting functions for me now as a metaphor for vision. Joan tilts her head as though to catch their voices but she cannot see the saints. I see the saints but also all the other elements that now crowd into the painting. The original painting is not lost: I remember my feelings at its first discovery; I remember who I was. Yet I no longer experience the work as I once did. I no longer experience any work the same way. The process that took place over a period of years with Joan of Arc is, for any other work appearing before my eyes, time-lapsed to days, even hours. I cannot help but immediately deconstruct what I am seeing.
I do not regret having become more rigorous in thinking critically about art. However, I find, when I return to the painting (and I do return often still), that I try to conjure the Joan of Arc of my inarticulate, unseeing youth. But then I remember that the voices eventually leave Joan too.