Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite details from “You Are Here,” and I can’t think of a better way to start than the novel’s beginning, where the hero, Peter Bankston, who works the register at a fictional coffee shop, is standing on a stepladder at a chalkboard, trying to draw an elf. The picture he’s trying to draw — “a group of shady-looking elves playing poker with Santa Claus, with the elves in background trading glances and the one in the foreground holding a Valerie’s Java Shop gift certificate behind his back” — is, in fact, a parody of a famous painting I’ve long admired, Georges de la Tour’s 1635 masterpiece “The Card-Sharper With the Ace of Diamonds”:
The scene depicted here, I must admit, has absolutely nothing to do with my story. And yet I thought it only fitting that I give the painting its rightful due to open the novel’s action. I had no idea this painting even existed when I first walked into the Louvre more than 16 years ago. I’d gone to Paris by myself for a week because I was taking French-language classes at the time (at The French Class, run by La Très Formidable Dominique Brémond). So I had all the time in the world to wander through the museum’s cavernous halls. I stopped by the Louvre’s more popular pieces — the Venus De Milo, the Winged Victory, and, of course, the Mona Lisa, where I recall jostling with a horde of tourists and their flashing cameras — but this was the painting I went back to, the painting that made me stop and look. What I remember best is how surprised I was at how much I enjoyed looking at it — the detail, the tension, the sheer immediacy of the scene — without having to be told that I should like it. I’ve since repeated that experience with many other works of art in many other museums, but I’ll never forget the painting that started it all. And since I first laid eyes on that painting at around the same time I started creating the character of Peter Bankston, I simply couldn’t resist paying a little tribute. Merci, Monsieur de la Tour!
Later on in the story, Peter draws a parody of a Pablo Picasso portait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, but, alas, I’ve got no kinship for that portrait; I randomly found it on the Internet one morning while I was writing that scene. I couldn’t tell you which painting it is, since I never saved it. But I presume it’s the painting of a woman with “a bluish face and emerald hair and plum-colored irises.”
Do you have a favorite work of art, a museum experience you’ll never forget? If so, I’d love to hear about it.