Between Faith & Doubt -- page 5 of 6

One reason Omar appealed so to Vedder was surely the fact that the poet also was willing to speculate, yet was never out of contact with a sensate, commonsense reality. This quality was not lost on Omar's translator, Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald argued against the "learned men" who favored Omar's being a Sufi, and the import of Omar's message being mystical. He did not see Omar as "the Poet lost in his Song, the Man in Allegory and Abstraction," but instead insisted that the verses present "Omar himself, with all his Humours and Passions, as frankly before us as if we were really at Table with him, after the Wine had gone around." [12] It is FitzGerald's Omar, not the mystical poet, whom Vedder perceived in the Rubáiyát; it was this Omar who was his kindred spirit until his life's end.

The "endless designs" that were suggested to Vedder by Omar's quatrains went well beyond the plates for the book; many of them served as the basis for major paintings. The Fates Gathering in the Stars, Vedder remarked in the letter to Millet, was his own invention, and he intended to make a picture of it someday. Not only this design, but numerous other Rubáiyát subjects as well were translated into paintings. They were enlarged, the text removed, and further details added. The Cup of Love underwent a two-fold transformation. In an early drawing Vedder showed the lover sitting with his beloved at his side on a sarcophagus, on which he tentatively lettered a quatrain. In the version that served as a plate in the Rubáiyát, a plaque is added with three verses inscribed. This composition was, in turn, strikingly changed when made into a painting. An adolescent cupid was added who proffers a globe to the unheeding lovers. The sarcophagus became an elaborately sculptured monument with a Greek sphinx at its corners. Roses adorn the earth, boughs with leaves hang from above, and a landscape gives a density of pattern to the small painting that dramatically sets off the opulent nude who lifts the wine cup for her lover.

While working on the Rubáiyát subjects Vedder was fully aware that his nude figures would meet with resistance on the part of his publishers, to whom he wrote: "I must insist on my nudes. I will tryto make them good, and covering them would suggest their being bad." He went on to say he would "take charge of the dignity of the work." [13] Lie those of the Renaissance masters and of the Greeks, Vedder's nudes emanate a radiant sexuality and vitality and are endowed with natural dignity. He would have been distressed to know that many years later his daughter's American friend, Hattie Bishop (Mrs. J. B.) Speed, asked if Vedder's fountain sculpture of a young boy could not have his nudity covered. [14]

The Cup of Death, the opposite plate to The Cup of Love in the Rubáiyát, also was made into a painting. In it, the winged "Angel of the darker Drink" holds a cup to the lips of the languid female whom he supports in his embrace. As Marjorie Reich has pointed out, the conception of death is similar to that depicted by George Watts, the English painter whom Vedder had met in London in 1870. [15] Both reflect a late version of the shift in the image of death that took place at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The long tradition of fearful skeletons and cadavers common from the late medieval period and still inhabiting the art of Breughel and Holbein, gave way to an idealized human personification reminiscent of the winged figures who escort the departed souls into Hades in late classical reliefs.

Vedder painted at least two full-length versions of this theme, one in somber tones "with very little color and almost all the reeds painted out leaving the figures standing against the sky." [16] Anita Vedder identified this somber painting as the original Cup of Death. In a letter she stated that the unfinished work "looked so dull against the studio walls (of gray-green) that my father took a dislike to the picture, laid out another and repainted it entirely with another coloring more brilliant and rich....The original picture remained always unfinished till 3 years ago about 1909 we changed house and for lack of another space was hung in our drawing-room which has a pale pink tint. The tint of the room was our despair! but by a strange coincidence this picture looked remarkably well and the low gray tones with the contrast of the wall harmonized charmingly. My father became at once interested in it again, it was taken down and it finished it with pleasure." [17]

The other version now owned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was painted for a Miss Susan Minns of Boston "whose fad," Vedder wrote, " is to have the greatest collection of dances of death going." [18] This painting, referred to by Anita as more brilliant in color, including abundant reeds at the river edge to form a background pattern for the two figures.

In a variant drawing for The Cup of Death in the Rubáiyát, Vedder added an omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, to the garment of the Angel of Death. The reference is to the biblical declaration, "I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord." [19] Once more Vedder indicated his tendency to fuse Christian references with the Persian poet's verses to extend the range of meaning.

The painting titled The Marriage of the Daughter of the Vine was also based on drawings for the Rubáiyát and discloses another aspect of the original design for the volume. From the very outset, the drawings were designed in pairs to be viewed together. A letter to Joseph Millet of September 18, 1883, in which Vedder outlined his early conception of the whole volume, included a layout showing the pages arranged in pairs, beneath which Vedder wrote, "the two pages will make one design." [20] All of the facing pairs are sensitively balanced, but the clearest unity is established between the two drawings for quatrains 59 and 60-61, and these were combined by Vedder to make a single painting, The Marriage of the Daughter of the Vine.

previous     next