During my summer visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I thought at first that I had stepped into an amusing coincidence. As I’ve thought about it since, I’ve come to realize instead that a truth had been offered to me that day.
My son and I entered the main lobby, turned left, and wandered into the Greek and Roman Art gallery…statues, pieces of statues, tombs, and columns of marble. We happened upon the remains of a second century Roman statue, Three Graces. The perfection of the marble statue has been damaged by time—the heads and arms of the figures are missing. But, of course, the perfected human forms are still striking: an incredibly human appearance of three women, known to the Greeks and Romans as the Three Graces: Beauty, Joy, and Abundance. We both paused a moment to admire the statue and imagine the impact of when it had been whole. It seemed a very ethereal, mythical, ancient piece of art. Three beautiful ladies making a kind of dancing circle, symbolizing all that is festive and pleasurable in the world.
We made our way to the back of the museum into the Modern and Contemporary Art gallery: Balthus, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, and so many others. The works are, of course, very modern…impressionist, abstract, pop. We were looking at a particularly abstract, enigmatic Picasso when I said, “It’s amazing that artists who used to create things like that statue evolved to create this thing.” For an instant we were both amused, until we noted that the next painting on the wall, by an American artist (Manierre Dawson) in 1912, was the very same ancient subject: Meeting (The Three Graces). “Oh my God,” my son said. “Here’s the Three Graces again!”
It seemed an idle coincidence…we had happened upon two versions of the same concept expressed 1700 years apart: The Three Graces. Mythologically, they were conceived as goddesses who brought an abundance of the pleasures of life. Over the centuries, expressions of a central human need for these pleasures—grace and beauty and creativity and joy and abundance—and their personification have persisted. We learned that day that in ancient Rome and centuries later in Chicago the simple, central, human love of these graces gave rise to an artistic expression.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that our “happening upon them” in the museum that day wasn’t just a coincidence…because I have since found that the portrayal of the Three Graces has gone on all over Western society all the time: in Florence, Italy in 1480; in Antwerp, Belgium in 1640; in Paris, France at the end of the 1700s; in Woburn, England at the beginning of the 1800s; in Dawson’s Cubist work in 1912 and James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” in 1914; in Indianapolis, IN in 1925; and even more modernly in Milwaukee, WI in 1965.
I’ve come to understand that notwithstanding the evolution of art, some things are constant. We may see the specifics of beauty and joy and abundance differently; we may sense them differently; we may express them differently; we may experience them differently; but at the center of human experience seems to be a constancy of longing, a longing for these goddesses who bring an abundance of the pleasures of life.