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A Lenten Triptych from York, NE

By February 23, 2018 5 Comments

Mildred Armstrong Kadish, in Little Heathens, her darling memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Depression, claims that her family had only two oil lamps before rural electrification. It’s unimaginable to think of how dark their world must have been once night fell. Perhaps that’s the world Lionello Balestrieri saw in the early years of the 20th century, when he did this painting for a triptych that outlines Frederick Chopin’s life. 

There in the bottom left corner, in a space only slightly lighter than the rest of the painting, sits a young Chopin, at a piano. The painting is simply too dark– Night Watch-ish–to see for yourself, and I wouldn’t see it either if it weren’t an explanation of the triptych beside it on the wall of the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in York, Nebraska. In this, the first of the three paintings hinged together into a wall-hanging, he’s pictured creating a fuss in a German railroad station where he’s consented to entertain the waiting passengers (did Chopin ever merely entertain?) Their hushed admiration is obvious in the more well-lit upper right-hand corner. 

This is, I was told by a note in the York museum, the young Chopin, not yet come to his prime perhaps, but drawing regard from an appreciative crowd right off the streets of the city.

In this second painting, the middle section of the triptych, Balestrieri gives Chopin an almost divine diadem that puts him at the visual heart of our interest. Trust me, I wouldn’t know any of this without that museum note, but his audience isn’t some random folks at the train station. A roll call of artists, rightfully famous in their time, sit in admiration of Chopin’s genius–Liszt, Delacroix, Meyerbeer, and a woman, the only one, with the improbable name of George Sand. She’s sitting closest to the front, in the best light and therefore most recognizable. She and Chopin were, for a while I guess, a thing. In every way, this portrait is suggesting Chopin at the height of his powers–all of them.

And then there’s this on the far end. That’s not him, cross-dressing at the piano. Chopin is the figure in the bed in the background, and he’s obviously hurting, dying in fact, his leaving made easier by the medium of music, but leaving, dying, all the same. Strangely, of the three triptych paintings, this one seems to be done with most deliberate light, which may well be its own moral lesson.

What the note in that small museum in York, Nebraska, says is, “the Polish Countess Potocka sings a psalm at his dying request.” 

Balestrieri created a triptych, three panels in one wide painting, a kind of visual biography of Frederic Chopin. You won’t even find it on the internet. The only one I know is in a museum in York, Nebraska. 

And I’m telling you all of this because it’s the one piece I remember best from that place, probably because it has an inescapable momento mori theme. It says, just as clearly as does Atlas, knees buckling but still holding up the globe, to be prepared–the end is always near. 

Then again, I suppose I’m susceptible to such things right now, having turned 70 just last week, three-score and ten. Maybe that’s why I’m sitting here telling you about a wall-hanging I could barely see in the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum, York, NE, originally a gift to a man named James A. Park from the Chautaqua Chorus, whoever that may have been, 110 years ago, the note says, in 1908. 

Just another timely reminder, I guess. Just another lesson for Lent. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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