Between Faith & Doubt -- page 3 of 6

Vedder's fascination with classical references and antique beauty had begun well before he discovered an affinity with the ideas of the Rubáiyát. It had come to the fore already in the 1870s. Undoubtedly, his 1870 trip to England bolstered his interest because there he saw the works of such notable "Olympians" as Frederick Leighton as well as Alma Tadema's domestic glimpses of the ancient world. In 1875 he proposed the subject of "Greek Girls Bathing" to J. P. Morgan. The painting of this subject, which was finished early in 1877, indicates that Vedder had arrived at a female type that would appear in much of his work throughout the rest of his career. Round-breasted and full-hipped with fleshy shoulders and small ovoid heads, these womanly figures express the classical and High Renaissance sense of dignity, grace, and freedom of the human form. Their classical garments flow about their ample bodies, accentuating their easy movements, or fall away to reveal a shapely breast or float, windborn, in an arabesque.

The composition ofGreek Girls Bathing is complex, including seventeen figures, and for it Vedder painted a series of cut-out figures, apparently to try a variety of arrangements. He painted the composition again some thirty years later with changes in detail and proportion, so evidently the theme pleased him. The modeling and detail of the earlier version are more finished than in the later, and the grouping of the charming young women by threes is more of an academic study.

Not only does Vedder's Rubáiyát present imagery in classical guise, it reflects also his preoccupation with rather unorthodox Christian formulations, such as those underlying his strange crucifixions in which the living mingled with the resurrected dead. There was another element of expression that found statement in the design of the book that belonged neither to classical style nor Christian thought. Vedder contrived a powerful visual symbol of his own, which, as he said, became an ever-recurring feature in his Rubáiyát illustrations. It is a double swirl representing, in Vedder's words, "the gradual concentration of the elements that combine to form life; the sudden pause through the reverse of the movement which marks the instant of life; and then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again of these elements into space." [10]

This double swirl of two interlocking S shapes (which are mirror images of each other) begins in wide rippling contours at the upper and lower edges of a page, but accelerates and contracts as the swirls meet in a loop. Such a dynamic, interlocking movement serves as a background structure for the frontispiece, which Vedder called Omar's Emblem. In the upper swirl is the title and in the lower a skull (the traditional Christian mememto mori); at their junction, which Vedder in his notes termed the instant of life, is a nightingale, perched upon the skull but singing exultantly. The transciency of life and yet its sensuous delight are symbolized also by the faded rose beneath the skull, its petals carried away by the swirling current.

The same pervasive symbol is used as the background for the poem's most despairing quatrian, here ambiguously related to a Christian reference. Although Vedder titled the drawing The Cup of Despair, he placed at its center a chalice rather than the low, footless wine cup seen in all of the other plates. The chalice, wreathed in swirling clouds, floats suspended at the central point, the "instant of life."

By tracing the development of one thematic group of plates, Vedder's way of using Omar's verses for his own ends, enriching and expanding their meanings through association with a broader context, becomes more evident. There is, for example, a thematic unity linking verses 75 through 81. The theme is announced by the familiar quatrains 75 and 76:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

And that inverted Bowl they call the sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we lived and die,
Lift not your hands to It fot help-for It
As impotently rolls as you or I.

These lines are set by Vedder against a star-pricked, planet-filled darkened sky. At the left a powerful eagle perched on a rocky eminence looks out at the heavens, but its left foot is chained. Vedder, in his Notes, titled this plate Limitation and commented that the eagle chained symbolized man's faculties, and that the irrevocability of the laws of nature are symbolized by "the stars bound together with their courses rigidly defined through space." Having established this psychological setting, he goes on in the following plate, for which he does not include accompanying verse, to "illustrate" more literally the quatrains themselves. In this drawing, titled by Vedder The Recording Angel, a sober male angel writes in the book before him. Beneath him are many beseeched hands, and Vedder notes that the attendant angels "may well have ears bandaged to shut out the agonized appeals of humanity lifting up its hands in hopeless supplication." Thus Vedder has taken the disembodied literary image of the "moving finger," with its Eastern anonymity and abstract philosophical connotations, and transformed it in such a way as to add to Omar's imagery the suggestion of a Christian dimension.


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