History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 May 2010

Metropolitan Musings: What Inspires You?

I spent nearly the entire day yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, catching up on all the exhibits I’ve been dying to see. The Met is one of the NYC places I tend to frequent whenever I need a creative pick-me-up, because I always see something that inspires me in one direction or another, whether it’s revisiting an old “friend” (a work of art I studied in high school or college, or just love to look at every time I head to the museum), or something new and equally compelling.

I began yesterday with the Picasso blockbuster exhibit, which is an everything-but-the-kitchen sink show that covers the entire gamut of the painter’s exceptionally lengthy career. Think you’ll have to stop creating when you’re 87? Think again. Picasso did a suite of intaglio prints between March and October 1968 titled the “347 Suite” for the number of drawings he just happened to dash off at the time – nowhere near his dotage. Of this suite, Picasso mused, "I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they're up to; basically, it's my way of writing fiction."


The exhibit showcases the Met’s collection of Picassos, a collection that began with a gift from writer Gertrude Stein of the artist’s 1905/06 portrait of her. That painting is one of my old friends: (my fellow art history students and I nicknamed it “Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein”) so I had to laugh when I read on the placard what Stein herself had to say about the portrait: “For me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.”

The Picasso exhibit ends up being a retrospective of the artist’s life, from the miniature caricatures that recall Daumier’s popular drawings through the Blue and Rose periods, naturalism (for him), Cubism and on and on through various media from oils to bronze to several types of printmaking, including linoleum blocks and deliberate homages to Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Cezanne, and Matisse. The" 347 Suite" in itself revisits several of the artist's favorite themes: circus figures, eroticism/nudes, prostitutes, cavaliers, horses, Greek mythology, harlequins, and majas.

Inspiration to Leslie the author: never stop creating; never stop experimenting with different genres.

Then it was on to "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity," the current costume collection exhibit, which celebrates the American Woman (although many of the garments on display came from the houses of Worth, Lanvin, Molyneux, Madame Grès, and other Europeans). The stunning exhibit welcomes the Brooklyn Museum’s stellar costume collection to the Met, which will be its new home. (no photos allowed, so I had to purchase the companion book HIGH STYLE, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this exhibit at a future date). I have seen nearly every costume exhibition at the Met since it was reopened in the 1970s, and this is certainly the best since the “Dangerous Liaisons” exhibit a few years ago. The rooms take you through several American feminine icons: the heiress (think Edith Wharton); the Gibson Girl; the Bohemian; the Suffragist; the Flapper, and the Screen Siren. All I can say is I wanted to wear half the garments.

Inspiration to Leslie the author: well – you know me and costumes, and for a certain fellow hoyden, I have a feeling this exhibit would have been an equally orgasmic experience. My only regret was that there weren’t a few strategically placed mirrors so that I could view the front of some of the garments, which looked so spectacular from the rear.


Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. I studied this early 15th century Book of Hours on both art history and medieval studies courses and it’s a must-see for anyone with a medieval bent. What makes this Book of Hours (a liturgical book meant for the lay person to enjoy, rich with illuminated manuscripts and astonishing miniature detail) so special is that it includes not only the Mary cycle, which is de rigeur for a Book of Hours, but it includes cycles of several saints. What makes the exhibition (on through June 13 only) so remarkable is that until now the duc de Berry’s Book of Hours has never been viewed in its entirety by anyone other than a close personal friend of the duke’s. The Hours were bound, of course, and were on display at The Cloisters, the Met’s uptown medieval sister museum. But the book would be opened to a different page from time to time and that’s all viewers saw. The book was carefully taken apart for painstaking repairs and the curators decided to display every leaf for a few months before stitching it all back together in 3 volumes.

You need a magnifying glass to see the images properly and to really get a sense of the magnitude of the work and the talent of the 3 teenage (!!) Limbourg brothers, native Flamands who were feted at the duc de Berry’s court while they worked on the Book of Hours. I got a bit of a religious education, but burned out pretty quickly on it, as the exhibit is vast and the viewing of so many miniatures is intense. But I came away with a greater appreciation of the social detail in the paintings. The depictions of early 15th c. garb for royalty, peasants, women, soldiers, etc., is an education in itself and well worth the trip for the medieval-era author.

Inspiration to Leslie the author: no detail is too small. Not only that, whimsy and humor can lurk where you least expect it.

And, finally (and I need to revisit this one), the exhibit of silver that the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa lavished on her favorite daughter, Maria Christina, on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Albert Casimir of Saxony, Duke of Teschen. Maria Christina (Marie Antoinette’s second oldest sister, was the only one of the empress’s children whom she permitted to marry for love, as she herself had done. The elaborate silver, much of it designed by the Viennese silversmith Würth, rivaled the craftsmanship of the French silversmiths of the 18th century. I came away wondering what Marie Antoinette might have thought of the prodigious gift her mother had made to one sister, when in most other ways she withheld both worldly riches and affection from her children.

So … what inspires you? Is there a special place you go to recharge your creative batteries?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I *love* museums as a place to creatively recharge, especially when I can see paintings and costumes of a previous century. However, most of my initial story ideas come from walking around the grand (and sometimes dilapidated) old country estates in England. There's something so poignant about walking through the halls that centuries of a family have also traversed.

That Book of Hours looks fascinating. The detail just in the one picture you posted was extraordinary.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sounds lovely. I just saw the Cartier exhibit at the Legion of Honor here in San Francisco. I went with a friend who's a jeweler, so it was especially fun.

We also caught “Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine” and revisited our old friends (I always have to go see the Cranach portrait).

12:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What works best, though mysteriously, for me as a writer is seeing dance performances. I prefer contemporary choreographers -- Paul Taylor, Stephen Petronio, Trisha Brown. Something about the abstract dance form manifested in physical bodies.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Wow! I spent the weekend at the local art festival. I was very smitten by some fabulous hats which reminded me of the frivolous darlings worn by Edwardian belles. Anything from great, swooping, broad-brimmed numbers to tiny, little frolics that bubbled atop the head.

It was amazing seeing men's reactions to girls trying them on. Very inspirational.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Leslie, on a wonderful topic! I love museums for inspiration as well. When I was a kid starting to write, my mom and I named all the late Georgian/Regency portraits in San Francisco's Palace of the Legion on Honour. I love the Met and The Frick. Like Christine I also get a lot of inspiration from walking through old houses and mentally setting scenes in my books. But I think my main ways to creatively recharge are going to the theater and the opera (often with my friend Penny who also writes, so we analyze things afterwards from a writer's perspective). I also find the symphony wonderfully energizing. Because there's no unfolding story to watch, I usually visualize scenes from my own books as I listen. I've made some important character/plot discoveries that way.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Thank you all, for your inspiring comments!

Christine, I, too, am a sucker for old houses and old parts of cities and towns. I love to imagine the former inhabitants, all the "if these walls could talk" scenarios.

Kalen, will those exhibits make it to NYC? It must have been fascinating to get additional details on the Cartier exhibit with a jeweler; and do you ever tap that friend's expertise for your books?

Pam, I adore the ballet (and most modern dance companies as well); ever since my maternal grandmother took me to performances of NYCB when I was about 5 years old, I was hooked, and allowing the music to wash over me as I watch the dancers interpret it, can be a transcendental experience.

Diane -- hats!!! The artistic mission of the nonfprofit theatre company I founded was to produce neglected classics of the 19th c. and 20th c. plays inspired by the work of 19th c. authors/dramatists). We had a shoestring budget, to say the least, and I made many of our accesories, including decorating the big hats. (Once upon a time in NYC, there was a hat and flower/feather district in the West 30s between Fifth and Sixth Avenues; it's 99% gone now). I kept all of them, which reminds me -- I need to find that box of oversized and deliberately overdecorated hats. I keep meaning to throw a Kentucky Derby party one of these years; hats for all! It was a new and different creative outlet for me to decorate the hats in the style and taste of the various characters in the plays.

Diane, would you share some of the men's reactions to the women trying on the big, elaborate hats?

Tracy, I agree that dramatic and musical forms can so inform our work and get our creative juices going. Opera is so marvelously theatrical, and such a different discipline from fiction; but of course so many opera plots derive from timeless stories set in some of the same eras we're writing about. Music too, just fills the soul. And then of course, there are the costumes!

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So now I'm going off-topic a bit, but I once needed a hat in order to attend a tea. I jumped on Ebay and found someone selling a large, sturdy, zippered hat box containing 5 ladies hats. It was some leftover from a theatre company. I had to have it! My favorite in the group is a little red number that everyone tells me makes me look like Madeleine (the children's book character). I've often wondered whether the hats (which are similar in size if not style) were made for a particular production, or if they had been made at independent times and just stuffed together in the box.

Maybe I should consider pulling my hatbox out for writing inspiration!

6:04 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have yet to tap the jewelry expertise (no relevant plots to date), but she's also a major history buff and like the rest of us here had a horde of minutia at her fingertips . . . when I wrote myself into a corner in my recent WIP, she came up with the perfect get out of jail free solution instantly.

And I agree with you all about dance and symphony! I just rarely have the money to go, LOL! When I was in grad school my roommate worked for the Opera House box office (or ticket office?) and we got free tickets to everything. It was wonderful. I couldn’t afford to go to the movies, but I could always go to the ballet or the opera or the symphony, LOL!

7:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I didn't know you worked for the Opera House box office. How cool! They have a great staff!

9:36 AM  
Blogger Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Leslie, I was just doing the same thing, a little further down Fifth at the Frick! I love the Met; one summer while I was in high school, my parents signed me up for a class there, giving me the excuse to go three times a week. I've been marked (in a good, art historical way *g*) ever since. Have you ever stumbled over the little room full of 18th c. "accessories" - the jeweled snuffboxes and ivory fans? It's probably only six square feet, but I could spend a whole afternoon in that one tiny little gallery...

10:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Not me, my roommate.

@SHS: I love that little room! I love the watches too.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Susan, I adore that room at the Frick as well; in fact the Frick is my favorite museum in NYC and I have spent countless hours there; it's full of my "old friends," especially the Romney of 16 year old Emma Hamilton as "Nature."

What sort of class did you take at the Met? Sounds amazing, whatever it was!

Christine, what fun it would be to guess what production the hats were from! When I was costuming the shows for my nonprofit classical theatre company I would rent a lot of them from the warehouse affiliated with NYC's Theatre Development Fund. It was where many old costumes from the Metropolitan Opera House, the Public Theater and several of the better funded nonprofits went to die and a lot of them had been rebuilt in any number of ways depending on the production they were used in and the performer wearing them. My favorite find? We were doing the Bob Hall/David Richmond "The Passion of Dracula" from the 1970s and I found a garment with a tag in it bearing the handwritten (and unusual) surname of the actress who had done the original production Off Broadway. It fit me perfectly (and I was playing the same role in my company's production, several years later). Very cool karma. (and talk about creative inspiration!) And how fortuitous that both productions were set in the same era.

Kalen -- free tix to anything at the Opera house? What a phenomenal perq!

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How I wish we were close enough to visit the museums. Went to NYC when I was in college, but haven't been back since. One of these days my husband and I will make it. Soon I hope. Wish it could be in time to see the Book Of Hours display, but not a chance.
Thank you for an interesting and informative post.

8:42 PM  

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