Volume 29, Number 2

The Painter: a poem for my son after an IEP meeting

Zeuxis Selecting Models for Helen of Troy.  Angelica Kauffmann, 1764.
Zeuxis et les Filles de Crotone.  Francois-Andre Vincent.  1789.

Pliny the Elder in The Natural History tells
the story of Zeuxis, the painter: In order
to construct beauty—to paint heaven’s Helen,
not the laughable old Aphrodite, “he had the young

maidens of Crotona stripped for close examination.
He selected five of them in order to adopt
their various parts and pieces for his picture, seeking
the most commendable points in the form of each.”

According to Lennard Davis, disability
studies scholar, “the central point here is
that in a culture with an ideal form of the body,
all members of the population are below

the ideal. No one young lady of Crotona can
be the ideal. By definition, one can never
have an ideal body.” Davis suggests, then, that we,
always the object, should feel good about this painting.

No one can be Helen of Troy. Ok. Fine. But someone
needs to tell that devastated woman in white
at the bottom of Francois-Andre Vincent’s version—
one of the many women whose parts, any parts, were not

chosen to be a part of the ideal. Not even
her wrist or ankle. Not the gold of her hair or the nape
of her neck. Not even her Roman nose, now tucked
in the bosom of the woman holding her up,

probably being told what Pliny the Elder reminds
us: Zeuxis was rich. Way rich. So, “in a spirit
of ostentation, he went so far as to parade
himself at Olympia with his name embroidered

on the checked pattern of his garments in letters of gold.”
Maybe that woman, that maid or mother, is whispering,
“you can’t trust an asshole who parades himself on the street
with his own name on his clothes to have good judgement

about beauty. Oh dear,” she might be saying, “if only
time had been kinder to you, to have you born just two
decades earlier, to have been the model for Angelica
Kaufmann. You could have been the one, not the one in white,

so compliant, complacent, posing in that position you think
you wish for now. Not that one, but the one in red
who slips behind that man and grabs the brush, in front
of the vast canvas, ready, only briefly looking behind

before beginning to paint yourself, to construct your self
and not draped here on my shoulder crying
over that man who would tell Helen, to her face,
that she should just smile more.”

—Jacob Stratman