Dead Men’s Bones

I did my homework.  The online auction was for an oil painting by a listed California artist.  The woman had exhibited and won honors at the California State Fair in 1890.  The date on the painting was 1889, so it is likely that this very picture had been included in that exhibition.  I had been looking, as usual, for a new and interesting painting of a bridge to add to my collection, but this intrigued me.

Women artists were not common in the nineteenth century, nor were they likely to win any awards with their work, being deemed “not serious” artists.  The painting obviously did not include a bridge, but it was a beautiful, nearly monochromatic painting of a hazy, almost foggy, nature scene, a wonderfully detailed lake with little waves lapping up against the rocky bank, and tall trees rising from the water’s edge in a gnarled stand of trunks and leaves.  The artist had even incorporated a little-used technique which imitated a frame, and then painted a stand of wildflowers in front of that, making it appear that the picture was almost three dimensional.  I wanted it!

As I always have done with the online auctions, I waited for the last possible moment and snuck in a bid with no time left for others to raise theirs. It’s a trick called “sniping” in the auction world.  I suppose the name comes from “picking off” the competition before they even know you’re there.  I’m sure that some other poor bidder was unhappy to lose the painting at the last minute, but in retrospect, I might have been happier had he won.  Regardless, the money changed hands and the painting was on its way to me.  I awaited its arrival with anxious anticipation.

A time or two while I was waiting, I went back to the auction page online to view the photo of the painting again.  Over the week it took for the package to traverse the countryside, a feeling of uneasiness began to grow.  I kept looking at the small photograph provided in the auction and wondered about a strange object  I had noticed on the side of the lake in the painting.  When first I saw it, I thought that it was just some brush, perhaps a windfall of some small saplings which the artist had included in the scene.  The photograph was small and not completely in focus, so I just couldn’t tell.  Ah well, no matter.  It was a listed artist!  It would be well worth my expenditure and my wait.

The painting finally arrived.  I cut open the package and carefully removed the protective covering around the frame and the very well executed painting.  It was everything I had thought it would be.  I loved everything about it.  The water was skillfully done, the technique with the wildflowers, exquisite.  The trees were…well, trees.  And, the Native American burial…wait a minute!  Native American burial?  That’s not what I bought!  I purchased an oil painting of a peaceful meeting of water and woods!   The Indian burial is certainly of interest, but it is not something I want hung on the wall of my den.

This occurred over four years ago.  The painting still has no place to hang in my home.  It sits today, a couple of feet away from the table where I unwrapped it with such anticipation.  It was going to be a valued piece which resided in a place of honor on the wall of my house, a special halogen light shining overhead, to spread light on it when company came, or when I wanted to just sit and drink in the artist’s skillful depiction of creation.  Instead, it leans against the wall, waiting for…what?  I have never sold a painting.  I paid too much for it to throw away, and it has historical significance.  It is of no value to me, though. 

What a great example of life this is.  Centuries ago, our Savior spoke to the hypocrites, calling them “whitewashed tombs”.  The practice of dressing up ugly things in pretty packages is nothing new to our society.  The hucksters of today have nothing on the ones of that or any century.

I’ve even wondered if the way I felt about this purchase is not the same way the Lovely Lady has felt a time or two over the last thirty-some years.  I did my best to package these ugly bones as we were courting.  You can’t live with someone like me for as long as she has and not have some of those ugly skeletons come into view.   She has veiled the horror admirably, and I still have a place in her home, so it would seem that she is more open-minded than I.  And, I am grateful.

Hmmm…I seem to have wandered…Oh yes, the whitewashed tombs.  It is certain that there are a few of those prettily decorated graves around still.  We all need to be careful that we don’t get taken in.  With the painting, I thought I had done my homework, but was fooled by a reputation and a bad photograph.  It would behoove each of us to examine our essential choices in life a bit more carefully than that.  Many will still choose the pretty door hiding the dead men’s bones.  I’m thinking that we can do better than that.

Beauty and joy, and life, lie before us.  Let’s not trade that off for any pretty picture of death, no matter what talented artist chose it as her subject.

Now, what should I do with this painting?  Maybe the hall closet…

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
(Dorothy Parker~American author~1893-1967)

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”
(Matthew 23:27~NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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