Saturday, April 21, 2007

Flight and Pursuit

When I was at the MFA in Boston last month, I was traveling idly through rooms content to let paintings catch my gaze rather than hunting for specific works. The MFA is oddly organized, a patchy quilt of rooms where it is easy to walk from 19th Century Continental European into Egyptian relics without the benefit of any transitive space.

It was walking through one of these rooms that I noticed and was drawn to William Rimmer's Flight and Pursuit. Unlike the surrounding paintings, it is not immediately clear what is going on here. A man is running through the scene, about to exit on the left. Behind him, not directly behind him but parallel, is a robed and transparent figure also running in the same direction. They appear to be inside a palace. The running man casts a shadow and a shadow appears to be directly behind him as well, cast, presumably, by something outside the painting to the right.

After my visit, I decided to learn more about the painting and the man who painted it. I assumed that I was ignorant of some crucial element of mythology or history upon which the painting was based. However, it appears that this particular painting is puzzling for many more reasons and, so far, has resisted attempts at decipherment.

The painter, William Rimmer, was a well-known mid-19th century English-born American painter. He practiced Medicine. He taught Art classes. He was mainly a sculptor, creating a statue of Alexander Hamilton for the city of Boston, but also produced lithographs and paintings.

But this abbreviated biography leaves out some of the more interesting aspects of Rimmer. Rimmer's father was an emigrant from France and believed that his son William was the lost Dauphin. It appears that William Rimmer believed this too, that he had been usurped of his royal role.

Also, Rimmer not only taught Art but specialized in Art and the human anatomy, and became a professor of Anatomy and Sculpture. He even published several well-received books on Art and Anatomy.

In Flight and Pursuit, we have an anatomical puzzle. The running man is in an unbalanced position. His left arm and left foot are thrust forward. This is not how someone appears in the act of running. It is also not a mistake a professor of Art Anatomy would make.

The title of the painting, Flight and Pursuit, is the painting's second title. The original title was On the Horns of the Altar. This has led several scholars to surmise that this painting is about a Biblical tale of usurpment.

In Kings 1, we find the tale of Adonijah:

1 Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon's mother, "Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king without our lord David's knowing it?

But Solomon soon regains his throne from Adonijah and Adonijah is left fearing for his life:

49 At this, all Adonijah's guests rose in alarm and dispersed. 50 But Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, went and took hold of the horns of the altar. 51 Then Solomon was told, "Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon and is clinging to the horns of the altar. He says, 'Let King Solomon swear to me today that he will not put his servant to death with the sword.' "

Here, the "horns of the altar" is synonymous with sanctuary. The usurper fears for his life. This does very little to clear up the painting's mysteries for me. Is this a painting of the usurper running from his assassins? Is this Rimmer and his ghost, a Boston painter and the Dauphin? I was initially drawn to the urgency and motion in this painting. It is impossible to look at this painting and not believe that the painter drew with intent and purpose. This is why I at first felt that this was an illustration of a common myth that had eluded me. The painters purpose may have been clear, but the painting, it appears, will continue to mystify.

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