At the height of a summer afternoon, a woman falls asleep in the shadow of a hay stack. The sun falls across her head and over her wrists, as she leans with her chin on her chest and her hands loosely linked.
Nearby, a man sits watching her sleep. He picks up a brush and mixes a softening lightness into his yellow paint, to catch the glint of the light.
John Singer Sargent painted "Resting," a quick, unstudied scene -- the sleeping woman circled by golden light on the loose hay and on a cropped bunch of clover. She may have been his cousin, according to the Clark Art Institute website where I am looking at this image on a winter afternoon.
The painter of hundreds of commissioned formal portraits and elegant drawing rooms sat in a clover field and painted his family. I wonder how he felt.
If I could unwrap paintings from the Clark's collection to hang on the walls, I'll tell you what I'd explore first: informality. Painting takes a lot of resources, and many painters even in Sargent's 1920s painted for patrons, for peers, for salons, for public acclaim. But in the times and places when a painter paints something familiar out of affection, something intimate and natural -- are those paintings different?
I'm looking through the Clark's uExplore site, from www.clarkart.edu, and mentally holding up Winslow Homer's "Saco Bay" -- the two woman pausing on their way home in the Maine sunset -- and Eugene Fromentin's "Arabs Watering Their Horses." Do I find the same quality here, translated from Fromentin's sketchbook after his travels in North Africa? Or George Innes' "Home at Montclair," softly outlined in the snow?
I'm not an art historian, but the Clark has invited this game. Anyone who wants to play (for real) can sign up on the website by 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Then, following guidelines the museum will post, each contestant can assemble a show -- and the winner will see that show at the Clark in March.
You can look through the paintings online any time and play with connections between them.
I'm not a curator either, but I know about the fun of this part.
A designer and creator of exhibits I know once suggested to me that curating and editing have a lot in common. In a magazine, I'm curating stories and photos: I'm assembling stories and images that, I hope, will talk to each other -- putting together pieces I hope will form a longer whole. I've also read that this is the way thought works. Lewis Thomas describes, at the level of brain biochemistry, the way pieces accrete to become an idea.
In a magazine, though, I can start with a theme (live music, rivers, 1860, the WPA) and work outward. Here the challenge is to begin with disparate pieces and work inward. How wide and how far is up to you.
It's a good way to feel the sun on your skin on a winter day.