Mrs. Richard Bennett Llyod and Edith Wharton

7:00 AM

Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Richard Bennett Llyod, 1775-76

“It was not the first time that Selden had heard Lily’s beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of comments had imperceptibly coloured his view of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda?" – Edith Wharton, House of Mirth

Back in the day in Gotham, the well-heeled would embark on a party/event season that took them through drawing rooms where tuxedos and diaphanous gowns would mingle… and steal kisses…and gossip…and make ethically-challenged decisions. Usually, there was someone who stood aloof – a social scribe of sorts, pen at the judgmental ready.

The youngsters may wonder if I speak of Gossip Girl, with lonely boy Dan Humphrey as the misfit who will extract his literary revenge by chronicling the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite. 
 Instead, dear youth, I speak of the original G.G. – Edith Wharton. Reading Wharton’s House of Mirth delivers a dastardly kind of pleasure as she shish-ka-bobs pretension with an almost untoward relish. But she knows that which she criticizes.

Ms. Wharton grew up in a household that has been apocryphally credited the inspiration for the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” She was unhappily married to Teddy Wharton, a Boston man of class and leisure who was significantly older. She and Teddy were often ill, nervous and didn’t much sleep in the same room. However, it took Edith 23 years to get out.

In Reynolds portrait, Mrs. Llyod carves her husband’s name into the tree. We could speak to how Wharton does similar things to the rich and powerful, wielding her sharp pen to slice into the New York social scene of her yourth.

But we could also look at how Reynolds places Mrs. Llyod. The 18th-century graffiti artist leans slightly forward with an unmistakably anticipatory look on her pale face. Also unmistakable, the focus on the midsection and those oh-so-naughty bare feet. Reynolds has beaten Sargent to the Madam X punch by a full century.

Lily Bart enacts this painting in the tableaux vivant scene captured above that gets Lawerence Selden all huffy towards those who mention Lily's foxiness. He sees Lily as Miranda in the forest. We don’t. Lily’s a hottie, but also indecisive, rash, and materialistic. She cuts a teasing, provocative path through high society, only to have her fickleness and desperation lead to social and emotional ruin. Clearly, a total loser Dan Humphrey moment; only this one’s delivered with an aplomb that can only be Wharton.

Editor’s Note: I would like to introduce you to a new class of art history students. For the next couple of weeks they will be bringing you passages of literature tied to paintings. I hope you will enjoy their insight and passion as much as I do.

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