February 4, 2013

"I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon.

This is the picture  — I assume — that F. Scott Fitzgerald had in his head...



... when he wrote that sentence, which is today's sentence from "The Great Gatsby." (Every day we isolate and talk about one sentence from "The Great Gatsby.")

El Greco painted that "View of Toledo" circa 1600. That seems too long ago for a man to have been painting like that. It's hard to understand how that could have happened. But maybe you are thinking: Toledo!? Was that part of the Ohio Inquisition we were just talking about?

I'll remind you once again of the look for the light question that almost always works in "Gatsby" sentences. Here we've got the absence of light. After last night, when Gatsby was his own light source...


(GIF by Chip Ahoy.)

.... tonight we have the moon and it is lustreless.

Lustre is a lovely word, evoking lust, though its lineage is different. Lust comes from the Germanic, and lustre comes from the Latin and is all about illumination. "The quality or condition of shining by reflected light; sheen, refulgence; gloss," says the OED. But here there is no light to the moon. Lustreless. It's a night scene. There are houses, here in America, not off in Spain, but you get the picture. It's like that El Greco. And in case you don't see it clearly — F. Scott Fitzgerald has a bunch of adjectives to make the point: conventional,  grotesque, crouching, sullen, overhanging, and — as noted — lustreless.

Even as there is contradiction in depriving the moon of its light, we've got contradiction in conventional and grotesque. It's an ordinary scene, houses on a landscape at night. But see it as grotesque. Put your El Greco distortion glasses on. Did you know that the etymology of the word grotesque has to do with painting and that, like El Greco's painting, it goes back to 1600?
c.1600s, originally a noun (1560s), from Middle French crotesque (16c., Modern French grotesque), from Italian grottesco, literally "of a cave," from grotta (see grotto). The usual explanation is that the word first was used of paintings found on the walls of basements of Roman ruins (Italian pittura grottesca), which OED finds "intrinsically plausible." Originally "fanciful, fantastic," sense became pejorative after mid-18c.
Grotesque was a happier concept 300 years ago. Who knows what happened in grottoes back then?

30 comments:

betamax3000 said...

Great.

I unilaterally declared today as 'Everything is Gatsby Day' and Ann finally posts today's sentence right before I go to bed.

Oh well.

I unilaterally declare Tomorrow as the second day of "Everything is Gatsby" Week.

Good night, Fitzgeraldstanians...

betamax3000 said...

"I see it as a Snow Globe by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless Unspanked moon."

Naked El Greco Robot. Retina Units out of whack.

Good Night, El Greconians, too...

chickelit said...
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chickelit said...

Who knows what happened in grottoes back then?

100 years ago, scandalous things happened in a Capri grotto. These events precipitated a wealthy man's suicide and the inheritance of a dynasty by his daughter and a slew of new weaponry-- enough for two world wars.

virgil xenophon said...

Guess that "Grotto" made him sucidily "blue," eh chicklit? :)

traditionalguy said...

The moon is dark in a sullen sky overhanging a vision of a grotesque grotto like the work of a Greek painter. The world of Mr Gatch is falling away.





chickelit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chickelit said...

Hearst Castle, located near San Simeon, has what is referred to as a grotto, though I think it's too opulent. Hearst Castle is well worth a visit, if you ever go out that way.

Madison had a bar/nightclub on State St called "The Grotto" which I vaguely recall and of course Dickeyville, WI still has their famous grotto.

William said...

I read somewhere that El Greco had some kind vision problems related to cataracts (?). He wasn't painting visions. He was painting what he saw. I also read that the extraordinary vivacity and intenseness of Van Gogh's paintings was how schizophrenics perceived reality.....I'd also like to share with humanity a pun I made in the last Fitzgerald thread. When Fitzgerald wrote of the green light that year by year recedes before us he was speaking litorally.

Chip Ahoy said...

Ha ha ha. I just now posted two Gatsby sentences. Wanna see 'em? They belong in a Gatsby museum.

Terry said...

Here is van Eyk's Crucifixion:
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/110000722#fullscreen
To the right of one of the thieves is painted a naturalistic moon, one of the first to appear in Western art. It was painted about 1400.
Everything else in the painting is from imagination. Van Eyk can't even get the perspective right.
Yet the moon looks as the eye saw it. Weird, isn't it? We think we know how they saw the world back then, but we don't, not really.

Palladian said...

I read somewhere that El Greco had some kind vision problems related to cataracts (?). He wasn't painting visions. He was painting what he saw. I also read that the extraordinary vivacity and intenseness of Van Gogh's paintings was how schizophrenics perceived reality

I despise the reduction of artistic vision and representation to an artifact of organic or mental pathology. Domenico Theotocopoulos and Vincent van Gogh knew exactly what they were doing.

Yet the moon looks as the eye saw it. Weird, isn't it? We think we know how they saw the world back then, but we don't, not really.

They saw the world, and depicted it, as it needed to be seen and depicted. Artists before photography answered to a higher calling than optical correctness. This was a vision of the world, and afterworld, as it needed to be seen, not as it was.

gadfly said...

Toledo - known as the armpit of the Midwest. It too is a very lackluster place sitting astride the north-flowing Maumee River as it dumps into Lake Erie.

Toledo was made famous as the home town of cross-dressing Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger of the 3032 MASH.

sydney said...

El Greco's paintings don't look much like the world seen through a cataract. Cataracts derive their name from the term for a waterfall. Having one is like looking through a waterfall. These days they get removed before it gets that bad.

I have heard Monet's later paintings explained as being the result of cataracts. They do kind of look that way.

edutcher said...

Good sentence and, if you've ever been through a lot of the little towns outside Philadelphia, they can look like that.

But I didn't think there were anything but Indians near Toledo around 1600.

chickelit said...

Who knows what happened in grottoes back then?

100 years ago, scandalous things happened in a Capri grotto. These events precipitated a wealthy man's suicide and the inheritance of a dynasty by his daughter and a slew of new weaponry-- enough for two world wars.


He should have just said, "Krupp you".

I assume the daughter was Big Bertha.

Chip Ahoy said...

Ha ha ha. I just now posted two Gatsby sentences. Wanna see 'em? They belong in a Gatsby museum.

What are those houses turning into?

Cap'n Crunch?

sparrow said...

Love El Greco, especially "The Resurrection". I'm sure he influenced Dali and others.

marvel said...

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have an illuminating discussion of the word "grotesque" in "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," a story written during the time when the usage of "grotesque" may have been changing from "fantastic" to something more sinister. "There is but one step from the grotesque to the horrible," Holmes says to Watson.

Clyde said...

No discussion involving Toledo, OH, is complete without this:

John Denver - Saturday Night In Toledo Ohio

Jose_K said...

Astigmatism is the vision problem attributed to el Greco. But Like someone already said, there is no reason to link his art and his problem.
What problem had Mattise?or Picasso? El Bosco? Rubens?

Jose_K said...

The best Greco:
http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_entierro_del_Conde_de_Orgaz

Clyde said...

Helpful hint: If you follow Jose_K's link, click on the English option on the sidebar, unless you are fluent in Spanish, so that you can enjoy the story behind the painting.

Ann Althouse said...

"I read somewhere that El Greco had some kind vision problems related to cataracts (?). He wasn't painting visions. He was painting what he saw."

It is perfectly illogical to blame the eyes for the distortion in the painting. It's not blurred. I've seen people surmise that he had astigmatism, but he used those same eyes to look at the painting, so if he saw distorted, it would get corrected in the painting as he copied whatever it was he saw.

CEO-MMP said...


"It is perfectly illogical to blame the eyes for the distortion in the painting. It's not blurred. I've seen people surmise that he had astigmatism, but he used those same eyes to look at the painting, so if he saw distorted, it would get corrected in the painting as he copied whatever it was he saw."

Huh? He saw blurry he painted blurry. How is it illogical and how would he have sharpened it on canvas if he painted what he saw and his eyes saw blurry?


betamax3000 said...

Again:

Naked El Greco Robot. Retina Units out of whack.

"Out of the corner of his hobbled eye El Greco saw that the blocks of the houses really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees, he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the palette of life, gulp down the incomparable pigment of wonder."

betamax3000 said...

Everything is Gatsby Day: Day Two.

CWJ said...

I think El Greco painted more than one landscape of Toledo. But surely, this would be the one behind FSF's sentence.

We visited the Louvre and after viewing much that was wonderful I happened upon their two El Greco's. I was struck petrified into place. Unnoticing people passed by hurrying on their way to see the Mona Lisa. I had never been so moved by a piece of art in my life.

LuAnn Zieman said...

Toledo. Spanish Inquisition. Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" was a good jumping off point for some historical background in my junior high English classes.

William said...

I stand corrected. The aesthetic vision of artists is so lofty and pure and driven that the material and physiological conditions of their lives are irrelevant.

Terry said...

LuAnn Zieman wrote:
Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" was a good jumping off point for some historical background in my junior high English classes.

It is important to remember that all sources are biased. Napolean conquered Spain in the early 18th Cent. Part of his plan to legitimize his rule was to paint the old regime in as poor a light as possible. This fed into anti-Catholic sentiment in the the Anglophone world.
Lurid tales of the Spanish Inquisition were more popular in the 19th Century than when when the SI was at its most powerful.

Jose_K said...

The seventh man( in the gentlemen´s line) in the paint I referred is El Greco. The kid is his son