“Dear Mrs. Kennedy,”

Within days of the President’s assassination, the letters began to arrive. Some were addressed simply “Mrs. Kennedy, White House, Washington, DC.” A shocked and grieving nation could find no other way to express its anguish than to write condolence letters to the young widow whose comportment through those dark days was the very definition of dignity.

In all, more than one million letters from all over the world were received. What a monumental task faced the First Lady’s staff and volunteers in sorting through the torrent of mail. Each had to be opened, read, categorized, passed on to the First Lady in some cases, and eventually archived. Imagine the organizational skills and hours of labor involved as workers tirelessly sorted through a veritable postal avalanche.

For weeks the letters arrived at a rate of thirty to forty thousand a day.

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Staff members and volunteers sorting through the avalanche of mail in the Executive Office Building.

 

I have a lovely little book, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” wherein Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis have compiled for us some of the condolence letters Jacqueline Kennedy received after the assassination of her husband.

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From William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice:

My heart is so heavy that words fail me. A sadness has come over the earth that it never knew….

From Dr. Benjamin Spock:

I have admired your husband for many qualities but most of all for his dignity. For the clarity of his vision and for his courage in fighting for the rights of Negroes and for peace…

From Reverend Billy Graham:

The President’s death is a national tragedy. He was my personal friend and I feel a personal loss…..

From Richard Nixon:

In this tragic hour, Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherish the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding…..

From David Wise, chief of the Washington Bureau of the “New York Herald Tribune:

Once, on a lovely day in Cape Cod, you told me that your husband was a thoroughbred. In the past five days you have joined him in showing the nation and the world what the word means.

From Noel Coward:

This is just to let you know that I, together with many millions, am thinking of you with heartfelt sympathy in this dreadful and incredible tragedy….

From Lauren Bacall:

This letter is so difficult to write. But a day has not passed that you and your husband have not been in our thoughts….the waste of a man who gave so much and had so much more. We miss him…..

From Queen Elizabeth II

I am so deeply distressed to learn of the tragic death of President Kennedy. My husband joins me in sending our heartfelt and sincere sympathy to you and to your family.

And then the heartbreaking letters from children. This one in particular speaks to me. This little girl was a second grader in 1963, just like me.

I am Gloria Crayton. I Live in a Small Town in The deep South. I am a Little Colored Girl, 7 years old in The  Second Grade. I Love you.

Two things strike me about this book: One, it’s interesting to note just who were contemporaries in 1963 and their common horrified reaction to the President’s death. Among the prominent letter writers were Winston Churchill, David Niven, Angie Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Bennett Cerf. Oh yes, and Nikita Khrushchev.

And two, this book is a poignant example of the power of the written word. Cumulatively, the letters are a howl of sorrow and regret. How beautifully people expressed themselves, many with references to classic literature, the Bible, and poetry. The letters read as a tragic time capsule into a time when certain graceful behaviors and levels of erudition were more commonplace than they seem to be today.

On St. Patrick’s Day of 1964, a date not without import to the Kennedy family, over 900,000 acknowledgement cards were mailed from Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Kennedy would respond personally to many other letters over the subsequent years.

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But there is one other letter of note I want to show you. We sometimes forget the other man who was shot to death by Lee Harvey Oswald that day, Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. Jacqueline Kennedy did not.

In the midst of her overwhelming grief, she wrote this letter to his widow:

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What can I say to you — my husband’s death is responsible for you losing your husband. Wasn’t one life enough to take on that day? […]

I lit a flame for Jack at Arlington [Cemetery] that will burn forever. I consider that it burns for your husband too and so will everyone who ever sees it.

With my inexpressible sympathy, Jacqueline Kennedy

And that, my friends, is class.

Thank you for reading,

Barbara

 

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“My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery”

 

The complicated legacy of the American South is beautifully captured in Kate Campbell’s song.

My regular readers know I’m fascinated with history and the Civil War and slavery in particular. The little book I excerpt in this post has haunted me a bit since I found it twenty-odd years ago in a dusty Charleston, S.C. book shop.

It’s mind-boggling to consider that we have in the Slave Narratives thousands of interviews with men and women born into slavery right here in the American South. Their actual words!

It all seems like ancient history from our 21st century vantage point, but it was really just yesterday in historical terms, a mere eighty years ago, that former slaves still walked the red clay of the South. Imagine.

We now have a rich legacy of over two thousand of their stories archived in the United States Library of Congress thanks to a monumental effort by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.  Writers were dispatched into the rural South to seek out and interview any surviving slaves. Not a moment too soon, I add, as seventy long years had passed since the end of the Civil War and the ranks were thinning fast.

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Twenty-one of their stories are compiled in “My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery,” edited by Belinda Hurmence.

At roughly the same time these interviews were taking place, the intrepid photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, was recording for the Carnegie Survey of Architecture the decaying mansions of the deep South. What a treasure she has left us. As the economy of the South collapsed, plantations were abandoned by the thousands. By the 1930s, many were in ruins and would soon be lost to time. Gone with the wind, one might say.

Shall we have a listen to what life was like for some of those behind the veil of these grand images? Experiences ranged from the most brutal imaginable to quite benign, really. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

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Rosemount, Greene County, Alabama

Marse Cain was good to his niggers. He didn’t whip them like some owners did, but if they done mean, he sold them. They knew this so they minded him. One day Grandpappy sassed Miss Polly White, and she told him that if he didn’t behave hisself that she would put him in her pocket. Grandpappy was a big man, and I ask him how Miss Polly could do that. He said she meant that she would sell him, then put the money in her pocket. He never did sass Miss Polly no more.   Sarah Debro, Age 90, Durham, N.C.

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Hayes Plantation, Edenton, North Carolina

I never saw a jail for slaves, but I have seen slaves whipped. I saw old man William Crump, a owner, whip a man and some children. He waited till Sunday morning to whip his slaves. He would get ready to go to church, have his horse hitched up to the buggy, and then call his slaves out and whip them before he left for church. He generally whipped about five children every Sunday morning.

No books were allowed to slaves in slavery time. I never went to school a minute in my life. I cannot read and write. Elias Thomas, age 84 

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Wade House, Huntsville, Alabama

We had poor food and the young slaves was fed out of troughs. The food was put in a trough, and the little niggers gathered around and et.  Jacob Manson, Age 86

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Thaddeus Goode Holt Peeler House, Macon, Bibb County, Georgia

Our master would not sell his slaves. He give them to his children when they married off, though. One of our master’s daughters was cruel. Sometimes she would go out and rare on us, but Old Marster didn’t want us whupped. The old boss man was good to us. I was talking about him the other nght. He didn’t whup us, and he said he didn’t want nobody else to whup us. It is just like I tell you; he was never cruel to us.

The white folks did not allow us to have nothing to do with books. You better not be found trying to learn to read. Our marster was harder down on that than anything else. You better not be catched with a book.

They had brandy made on the plantation, and the marster give us all slaves some for their own uses. We eat collards, peas, corn bread, milk and rice. We got biscuit and butter twice a week. I thought that the best things I ever ate was butter spread on biscuits.

One of the slaves, my aunt, she was a royal slave. She could dance all over the place with a tumbler of water on her head, without spilling it. She sure could tote herself. I always loved to see her come to church. She sure could tote herself.       Hannah Crasson, age 84.

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The Hermitage, Savannah, GA

Marster would not have an overseer. No sir, the slaves worked very much as they pleased. He whupped a slave now and then, but not much. I have seen him whup them. He had some unruly niggers. Some of them were part Indian, and mean. They all loved him, though. I never saw a slave sold. He kept his slaves together. He didn’t want to get rid of any of them. No slaves run away from Marster. They didn’t have any excuse to do so, because whites and colored fared alike at Marster’s.  Marster loved his slaves, and other white folks said he loved a nigger more than he did white folks.        Isaac Johnson, Age 82, Lillington, NC.

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Drish House, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

I remember the day we was put on the block at Richmond.  Me and my Mammy was just sold away from my daddy just like the cow is sold away from the bull.

I remember seeing a heap of slave sales, with the niggers in chains….I also remembers seeing a drove of slaves with nothing on but a rag betwixt their legs being galloped around before the buyers. About the worst thing that I ever seed, though, was a slave woman at Louisburg who had been sold off from her three-weeks old baby, and was being marched to New Orleans…..as I pass by, this woman begs me in God’s name for a drink of water, and I gives it to her. I ain’t never be so sorry for nobody…..she dies there side of the road, and right there they buries her, cussing, they tells me, about losing money on her.

Slavery wasn’t so good, cause it divided families and done a heap of other things that was bad, but the work was good for everybody.  Josephine Smith, age 94, Raleigh, N.C.

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The Goode Mansion, Alabama

We had good food for Marster was a heavy farmer. I saw only one slave whipped. I had mighty fine white people, yes, mighty fine white people. Their son whupped my mother pretty bad because she did not bale enough corn and turnips to feed the fattening hogs.   Samuel Riddick, Age 95

 

 

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Belle Grove, Iberville Parish, Louisiana

Marster would not have any white overseers. He had nigger foremen. Ha! Ha! He liked some of them nigger womens too good to have any other white man playing around them. He had his sweethearts among his slave women. I ain’t no man for telling false stories. I tells the truth, and that is the truth. Jacob Manson, age 86

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Wormsloe Plantation driveway. Savannah vicinity, Chatham County, Georgia.

If you’re interested in reading more of the slave narratives, they can be downloaded –some for free – from Amazon.

Thank you for reading,

Barbara

 

Posted in Books, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 73 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Achievement

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts held its biennial extravaganza last weekend:

Fine Arts and Flowers.

Those of us who attempt floral arrangement of any kind will appreciate the immense achievement of the inspired designers participating in this event. They are asked to interpret works of art from the museum’s permanent collection. Interpret, not copy.

Because I could not take my time or elbow other attendees out of the way in order to get the perfect shots, we will have to make do with what I was able to capture. It’s annoying in the extreme that my blog photography needs do not trump the viewing pleasure of other museum patrons, but that seems to be the case, at least this year. Maybe two years from now…..

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Jasper Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed”

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Sechs Tanzerinnen – Six Dancers”

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Marsdon Hartley, “Franconia Notch”

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Pierre-Jacques Volaire, The Eruption of Vesuvius

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Paolo de Matteis, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”

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Jules Olitski “Isis Ardor”

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Lamp, Boston and Sandwich Glass Company

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Asiatic Sarcophagus, Artist Unknown

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Franz Xavier Winterhalter, “Portrait of Lydia Schabelsky, Baroness Stael-Holstein”

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Willem De Kooning “Lisbeth’s Painting”

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Korean Door Panel, Artist Unknown

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Frank Lloyd Wright, Windows

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Franz Kline, Untitled

I would guess by the huge crowds that the museum’s goals for this exhibit were achieved as well. Terrific show.

Hope you enjoyed this little tour!

Barbara

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I’ve Got Mail

I am hopelessly sentimental about a handful of things, letters being very high on that short list. It’s easy to be ruthless with an email and consign it forever to the dreaded Trash folder. But a letter? That’s another thing entirely.

If you think enough of me to rummage about for stationery, put pen to paper, address and stamp an envelope, and wade through a metaphorical two feet of snow to get to the mailbox, I feel justified in treasuring your letter. It’s the tactile sensation of holding in my hand something you’ve held in yours and seeing your handwriting. Folded up and tucked away someplace safe, a letter can be revisited again and again. It’s a warmly personal experience in a way that texts and emails will never replace.

I feel such a thrill when the mail arrives and I spy something so easily detectable in the stack of bills as – can it be? – A letter! A note! For me?

One family story for you and then I’ll share a few notable letters. When my mother was a little girl, she found a stack of letters exchanged by her parents during their courtship. Inspired, she proceeded to play mailman by delivering a letter to each mailbox along the street. One by one, the letters were returned by the neighbors to her astonished and mortified mother. I guess this is like hitting the “reply to all” button accidentally.


 

If it weren’t for letters, we wouldn’t know that we dodged a bullet in the casting of “Gone With The Wind.”

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Frankly, my dear, you have nothing on Clark Gable.

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Belle Watling, maybe. One of the O’Hara sisters even. But Scarlett? Fiddle-dee-dee.

From her letters now documented in the book, The Scarlett Letters, we know now that, inconceivably, Margaret Mitchell preferred Charles Boyer to Clark Gable for the role of Rhett Butler: “And I wish Charles Boyer didn’t have a French accent for he’s my choice for Rhett.” Clark Gable “has never been the choice for Rhett down here.”  Quelle horreur!  Her choice for Scarlett was fellow Georgia girl, Miriam Hopkins.

One heaves a giant sigh of relief that casting of the movie was in other more capable hands.


 

Letters offer a glimpse into the courage and conviction of public figures. Here an excruciatingly polite First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the Daughters of the American Revolution after their famous refusal to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall:

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Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley’s admirably succinct response to Klansman and National States’ Rights Party Chairman Edward Fields who wanted the recently renewed investigation into the 16th Street Church Bombing case suspended. Note the quotation marks around “Dr.” Punctuation has such power, non?

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Can you imagine the love story behind an envelope adorned with this much care?

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And to Miss Gertrude Stein, no rose is a rose is a rose is a rose from this publisher.

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An indescribably beautiful gift to a bereaved husband:

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Seems a shame somehow to banish some of my favorite letters and cards to the drawer. A few of these merit framing and there are still one or two unadorned walls in this old Barn. Another project, perhaps?

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From my pile of cards and letters

Do you spy the barn owl in the pile above?  Have I mentioned how much I love owls? Well, I really do, so imagine my delight when I came across this image combining two favorite things:

036a0ff01e7bf146d196467a486b0e64Maybe I need to get away from the computer now and put my thoughts into practice. The mail goes both ways, I’m told.

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Minimalist

Minimalist photography is characterized by a large portion of negative space, a fairly monochromatic color palette with good contrast, and an interesting subject that is able to stand on its own to capture the interest of the viewer.

Behold! The bountiful harvest from this summer’s newly planted fig tree (ficus minimalist.)

 

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Have a great weekend!

Barbara

 

 

 

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Eagle-Eyed Adventure

I’ve dazzled you all in the past with my dramatic wildlife shots:

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Berkley with his arch-nemeses, the grazing cows.

 

So when my dear brother-in-law, Mike, invited us to come with him on a bald eagle photo shoot on the James River, I felt pretty sure my trusty Samsung phone-camera would give me some great shots of our day.

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The shores of the James

It was one of those glorious October days where everything comes together so perfectly that even though we were sad from Berkley’s passing, our spirits were lifted.

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The most beautiful sycamore we’ve ever seen.

 

Michael is an interesting guy. Like his three younger brothers, he is self-employed. He is an equine massage therapist/trainer and an outstanding saddle fitter. But his true love is photography, in particular shots of birds.

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There has been a dramatic resurgence of resident bald eagles along the James River in Virginia. Get this: in 1975, the bald eagle had disappeared completely from the shores of the James. Today, through remarkable conservation efforts, we have 233 nesting pairs of bald eagles.

The resident bald eagles are monogamous creatures living their entire lives in one territory which they defend mightily against any and all intruders.

It wasn’t long before we began to see them perched as high they could go on the immense trees.  Eagles have such a regal quality; they’ll come down if and when they’re ready and a not a moment before. When one did soar down to the river, the photographers began snapping away madly as I fumbled with my phone and reading glasses:

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Are you not impressed? Here’s another of my spectacular shots:

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I mean, really, between you and me, you have to wonder whether Mike is wasting his money buying all these fancy lenses and accessories:

 

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But then it all becomes clear. Sometimes you get what you pay for:

 

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Typical photographer that he is, Mike’s comment on this shot is that he clipped the wing. My comment is that this is wonderful:

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Let’s just say I have a new-found admiration for what it takes to get a decent shot of anything non-bovine or canine. Kudos to you photographers out there!

I did get one other rather cool eagle shot from the captain’s stash of educational props. No wonder we’ve seen a resurgence in population. Yikes.

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And how often does it happen that an out-of-towner (Mike lives in South Carolina) introduces you to something terrific right in your own backyard? We’ll be back on the James again very soon, I’m sure.

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

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The Forbidden City Comes To Richmond

East meets West in grand style in Richmond for the next few months. Our Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is hosting the Forbidden City exhibit and it’s a jaw-dropper.

I was invited to a private tour of the exhibit yesterday (how about that?) and I could have stayed all day if left to my own devices. One fabulous object after another was on display, but one in particular caught my eye.

We’re not allowed to take photographs in the exhibit (dash it!) but here’s something very close to what captured my imagination:

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An enormous scroll of a life-sized horse dominated a gallery space, and I was immediately drawn to it. There was something about it that seemed….well, different from the artwork one typically sees on Chinese scrolls. And for good reason, it turns out.

Imagine my surprise to see that it was painted by a young Jesuit missionary in the early 1700s named Giuseppe Castiglione. He is credited with transforming the paintings of the imperial court of Emperor Qianlong with a strong Western influence.

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The influence of European equestrian portraits is clear. It was Castiglione’s paintings of horses which earned him imperial favor.

I am completely enthralled with this story. It turns out that the Chinese were too. In 2005 a 24-part miniseries was produced in China called “Palace Artist” and Castiglione was played by Chinese-Canadian actor Dashan. Wouldn’t this make a fascinating story for Western television, too?

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The Empress Xiao Xian gets her due.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a few of Castiglione’s paintings. All reside either in Beijing or at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. The western influence is clear, isn’t it?

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Castiglione arrived to the Forbidden City in 1715 at age 27 in answer to a summons from Jesuit missionaries already in China for a court painter. He was given the Chinese name Lang Shi’ning.

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He spent the rest of his life at the Imperial Court dying in 1766 at age 77. The romantic in me can’t help but wonder how his days were spent. Did he marry? Have children?

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Here is the Emperor himself. He did not approve of chiaroscuro declaring that shadows made the painting appear dirty. Castiglione made the adjustments necessary in his painting technique to keep the Emperor happy. Transformations take time, evidently.

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OK, all you fabulously talented authors out there. Isn’t this just the coolest premise for a novel? Imagine the best-seller possibilities! Court intrique, Chinese culture clashes, maybe even a love story. He wasn’t a priest, after all, just a Jesuit lay-brother…..

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Just no “50 Shades” of anything because we know the Emperor did not approve of chiaroscuro. I tend to agree.

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Xie Xie,

Barbara

 

 

 

Posted in Art, History, Random Ruminations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 63 Comments