My cousin Sophie is dying. She is ninety. It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time. We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks. My mother is there now.
Sophie loved painting. She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard. They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years. She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors. She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.
Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us. I did not have time to tell. But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it. I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another. This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people. She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.
I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious. Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book. There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes. A painting may say, now, we are here.
Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st. May she rest in peace.