A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO I noticed that my living room felt not exactly crowded–though stacks of books and newspapers will do that to a room. No, it felt “occupied,” though Jeremiah, half St. Bernard but all dog, and I were the only ones there.
That’s when I noticed for the first time how I had surrounded myself with people.
Above the mantel, there are four 19th-century etched studies of 15th- and 16th-century paintings by Guido Reni and Raphael.* These faces, I suddenly realize, have hung there for decades, looking off in their distracted way, only one of them paying any attention to me.
On one of the bergeres–the only comfortable seats in the living room, I’m afraid–is a pillow with a canvas front brandishing the eye of the “Grande Odalisque” by Ingres. Did I know this when I bought the pillow? Not exactly, but I was sure I had felt that gaze before; a quick trip through the Internet provided the name.
More-casual objects contribute to my silent salon: stuffed dolls that I (and thousands like me) found in the mountain market town of Otavalo, in Ecuador; a 19th-century clothed Italian creche figure, presumably the black Wise Man Balthazar; a supposedly 18th-century angel, one wing chipped, no doubt “liberated” many years ago from a church in some small European town. To the left of the angel, for no particular reason, I have propped a brochure from the Mauritshuis in The Hague so Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” can join the conversation. (At least she looks at me as though she cares what I have to say.)
One purchase within the past decade may be a little too present: I mooned over a five-piece wall hanging by decoupage artist John Derian for a couple of years before taking the plunge. Derian has a large collection of antique and vintage prints, and artisans he trains collage the designs onto glass. This piece is called, simply, “Skeleton, Front View” (from Derian’s website, I now see there is a “Skeleton, Back View,” but one view is enough for one living room).
When I first unpacked the rectangular glass pieces of “Skeleton” I tried arranging them on an open wall. Too overt! Much better to tuck him away on a side wall where he competes for attention with a couple of paintings and stacks of books. He’s much better as a “discovery” than as a “presentation.”
Although I was a bit surprised when I realized how many “friends” I had amassed in the living room, I am hardly the first to appreciate the power of the human face. Cue Andy Warhol, whose multicolor takes on famed visages made him rich and in demand. And Post Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who collected a remarkable range of portraits of a family not her own (of course, the family was the Romanovs, and Catherine looks, well, Great–but the doomed Tsar Nicholas II still looks like my cousin Bob). You can view them at Hillwood Estate and Museum.
Faces need not be human to have impact. Designer Darryl Carter has used large photos of his dog in various rooms at home, and they give life to the quiet decor. Jake, the dog of another family, had his photo taken and then printed on canvas, by San Francisco designer Jennifer Kesteloot, and stretched over a frame for mounting in the family’s breakfast room.
I like to think that even body parts have impact. An enameled metal tray by Italian artist Piero Fornasetti hangs over the doorway to my kitchen: All it is is an etching of an arm–supple, a bit plump, feminine and appealing. The viewer can imagine the rest.
My “guests” seem to get along with one another, the wood angel appearing to snuggle up against the “Girl.” Now all I have to worry about is what they say about me when I leave the room.
* I felt compelled to look up who’s been sharing my living room for the past 30 years: The faces are of the courtesan-philosopher Aspasia of Miletus, supposedly from Raphael’s “School of Athens,” but I sure can’t find her there; another woman from another of Raphael’s frescos for the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican; the poet Pindaro, from Raphael’s “Mount Parnassus”; and one of Guido Reni’s female “hour” figures in his “Aurora” fresco.