Matisse-Woman & Aquarium

[Matisse’s woman dwells “in an ancient lyrical relation to the world.”]

A memoir of leisure, looking, and artistic expression.

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampl. Harcourt, 215 pp.

Hampl_4.inddBlue Arabesque opens with Patricia Hampl’s discovery in the Chicago Art Institute of a painting by Henri Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. Hampl was a recent college graduate writing fiction and poetry, but she knew little about art when the painting transfixed her as she rushed to meet a friend in the museum’s cafeteria. Her friend told her it was a lesser painting. Yet it spoke to Hampl: “Looking and musing were the job description I sought.”

Who is the mysterious woman in Woman Before an Aquarium and what does she mean? She with her almond eyes mirroring the goldfish? Hampl figures she’s a writer—see the notebook—and she’s posed before a Moroccan screen, which “hints at a mysterious aqua beyond,” that Matisse fetched back from North Africa. Of equal import, Who is the bookish girl captivated by the gazing woman? We’ll learn more of her, in time, and of her deep, defiant affinity for Matisse’s “decorative instinct.”

Her now-lengthy inquiry yields this core insight about the relationship among art, craft, and self:

A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized—to be art. For it is the artist’s fully engaged sensibility—mind/heart/soul—that is really at stake for modernity. For all the critical complaint about the narcissism of modern artists, the twentieth century demanded self-absorption of its great ones: Don’t give us your skills, give us your attitude.

Hampl’s narrative, moving chronologically through her life of consuming art, is diffuse. This risks losing readers, but you come to see and to savor her journey. And to appreciate the slow, indirect, and subtle self-portrait that emerges. Classed by its publisher as a memoir, it isn’t exactly. More like a book-length essay (nicely divided into seven chapters) that’s deeply and intrinsically personal and obliquely memoiristic. A meditation on the arts, on looking, and on the “leisure of great private endeavor” needed to make art, Blue Arabesque moves from story to story—about paintings and their creators, especially Matisse, but also Hampl’s “pagan saint,” writer Katherine Mansfield, and an obscure filmmaker from Hampl’s hometown.

Henri Matisse

[Henri Matisse, 1869–1954.]

Motifs in Blue Arabesque include North Africa—whose mythical odalisques (concubines) captivated Matisse and some fellow painters and sent them across the Mediterranean to see—and the French Riviera, where Matisse and other aficionados of languid women did much of their work. It’s where the odd filmmaker moved from frigid St. Paul, where Mansfield wrote some of her most famous stories. And where Hampl, having paid a call in Turkey two chapters before, visits to write in middle age. Wrapping up the book, she’s as well a humble, foot-sore, loafing tourist. She pays a call to Matisse’s late creation, a chapel near Cassis, where she meets his last muse, now elderly and a nun.

Not everyone is a reader or a simple looker and “it’s been smashed—the long reign of slowness.” But if you’re too busy to consume art, might you miss life itself? Or is ample loafing and looking enough? As for those who labor to make, Hampl makes clear it’s idle travel that undergirds “the hunting-and-gathering civilization that is artistic endeavor.”

She writes late in the book:

I’ve been here off season, which makes Cassis and all the towns I’ve visited along the Riviera these past months seem old fashioned because empty, the social world slow enough for conversation, for banter, for the sitting-and-staring that is the core of living: the just looking of the artist life. . . .

Sitting here, a person without any employment except to look. I have an uncanny sense that all things here in this light, the world itself and all its haphazard parts, have a way of coming together to form something—the sun, the lick of the morning air off the sea, shopkeepers leaning on big brooms, gulls sweeping the sky, the ruined medieval chateau on the crown of the bluff across the harbor almost effaced in the light, insubstantial but enduring like the past as it recedes and enriches itself in the mind.

That lovely final sentence of 82 words shows as well as anything how rich Blue Arabesque is in implication. Which lends it a painterly quality, this unified work of art about one writer’s love of artistic expression. With a deft touch, Hampl has created a book as beautiful as its title.

[Kathryn Harrison reviewed Blue Arabesque in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Anne Lamott has a new essay at Sunset about making time to dwell in beauty, arguing that today’s manic forms of connectivity are hostile to this, saying “creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.”]

Ingres-Grande Odalisque

[Concubine queen with a “cello back”: Grande Odalisque, Jean Ingres, 1814.]


  • Something that I noticed, I think, is that “Blue Arabesque” contains not just a present moment of contemplation, but a past one as well. The woman’s eyes are not actually fixed on the fishbowl, but skew a little farther to the right, as if she was at first staring at the fishbowl in contemplation and then the contemplation itself became all-consuming and caused her to veer her eyes away a little more. It’s intriguing to wonder what she is thinking about, and something that I can well see occupying other gazers at her herself, in galleries and the like. Sort of the ultimate reference to a reference to a reference, if you see what I mean.

    • Richard says:

      Yes! I think you are exactly right, Victoria. I see it now, in this large image. And I’ll have to return to the book now to see if Hampl herself emphasizes this aspect; she certainly discusses this painting in terms of musing and leisure rather than the woman being fascinated by goldfish . . .

  • shirleyhs says:

    Love the comment exchange above. Very perceptive. Hampl’s writing is lovely, but it sounds a bit ethereal. I suspect I might prefer her memoirs to her “memoiristic” essays. Love the Matisse painting and, as always, I’m grateful to you for pointing me to things I might otherwise not know about, Richard.

    • Richard says:

      Aw, give Blue Arabesque a try, Shirley. It’s more unified than an essay collection. The subject is inherently ethereal, and so is the overarching narrative, but the prose is always grounded. If that makes sense!

  • My first literary crush was on Patricia Hampl — I’ve read everything she’s published (beginning with her poetry; I used to go out of my way to hear her read her poetry). She happened to be on sabbatical from the U of M (taking advantage of her Macarthur award) while I was studying there, otherwise I would have been sitting in her classes with that “I want to be just like you when I grow up” look on my face. Her influence was deeply ingrained in the English department and we all talked about what she’d say if she were here (in Minneapolis) instead of in Prague.

    Blue Arabesque was, to me, something like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I kept both by my bedside for a number of years, (and yes, I read them, too!), hoping to absorb their insights.

    And when I re-read both of those books, these 20-some years later, I realize–they were definitely major influences! But I like all that ethereal stuff. And I do manage to spend a good part of every day “looking and musing.” I had forgotten that line. I think I’m going to have to find a way to put something like that on my business card. Maybe Professional Ponderer?

    • Richard says:

      I’d forgotten your enviable roots in poetry, Tracy. And what a fine pervasive influence, if indirect, to have in Hampl when you were a student. If one insists on a strong this-happened-and-then-this narrative, Blue Arabesque might not suit—but who wants that for every book? Not me, though I’m a sucker for narrative, and I loved her subtle use of herself as a background narrative to her foreground musing on art and its creation.

  • […] Yesterday I read a very fine review by Richard Gilbert, called: Hampl’s ‘Blue Arabesque’. A memoir of leisure, looking, and artistic expression. […]

  • Janice Gary says:

    Love Hampl. Thanks for alerting me to this new book. The subject is so important for writers- giving ourselves permission to look- really to fully immerse ourselves in the senses –which is key to informing our world, our thoughts, our writing.

  • Olga says:

    Thank you, Richard, for the wonderful review. When I read it, something clicked in me – I borrowed the book at the library and loved it. After that, I read a collection of Mansfield’s short stories with much delight, and now is thinking of re-reading the Hampl’s memoir – simply can’t part from it.
    Your post was like a gift for me – a good month of reading and musing.

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