Essay of the Week: “Commuting Through Life’s Galleries”

By Zoë Hopkins

My paintings begin to unfold every weekday at 7:20am as I take my seat on the M86 bus. I sink into familiarity upon seeing the lady who spends the ride rouging her lips and lining her eyes. MaybeI will place her in a canvas with that man in a dark suit–perhaps a lawyer. He appears elegant yet modest in the portraits of my imagination. I don’t know these people personally, but I can envision their lives in the paintings of my mind’s eye.

Some mornings, I feel immersed in a scene from an Edward Hopper painting; my fellow commuters carrying the introspective tranquility of his American realism. Other days, my morning acquaintances echo the colorful drama of a Rubens, which manifests itself in the bright blush of the woman attending to her makeup.

I study art history in ways that touch my life in unlikely places like fencing bouts, where I take my epee on a journey through patterns and observations that are intrinsic to analyzing art. My opponents mirror pieces of Cubism in which the artist has taken apart an object and disguised it, confusing the untrained eye. Fencers assume their own disguises: faking attacks and setting up elaborate preparations to throw off opponents, whom are left trying to decipher their actions.  I attempt to go underneath my opponent’s disguise, following my process of reassembling the pieces of a Braque to make the composition whole.

The depth of my passion for art became apparent when it reenergized my jet lagged brain after a long flight at the end of eighth grade. On a trip to London with Dad, I lost track of time wandering the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum until closing time. I was left incredulous and near tears by the beauty of the Raphael Cartoons and mesmerized by the verisimilitude of Canova’s Three Graces.

The more I engaged with this interest, the more my hunger to learn grew. However, my school did not offer an art history survey course until senior year. So in tenth grade, I created an instagram account called WorldArtHistory. The blog became my own class as I wrote hundreds of posts on works of art and their backgrounds, adding my own analysis. WorldArtHistory lent a new sense of accountability to my study of the subject as it grew into a resource for other students and art lovers and my platform for sharing my way of seeing the world.

Recently, I experienced gleeful recognition when I saw a work of art I’ve featured on my blog in person at the Washington National Gallery. I am immediately drawn to the pastoral scene that is Raphael’s Alba Madonna crowning the south wall of the gallery. The painting is at once a charming family picture set in a bucolic landscape, and a tragic allusion to death and suffering. I am Agnostic, but the seemingly unbreakable unity of Christ and Mary combined with the allusion to Christ’s death moved me in exactly the way I believe Raphael intended. I do not know what it is like to feel connected to God, but I know firsthand of a mother’s love. The ability to make an Agnostic person relate so painfully to a religious subject, and to open me up to a higher level of human understanding, is what elevates art to something otherworldly for me.  Amidst my own meditation, I become cognizant of my power of observation.

Art history has enlarged its space in my imagination, quietly influencing my life in all its spheres. On my bus ride home, after a long day, I simply meditate on the quotidien scene and contemplate whether the characters around me are figures in a David or a Toulouse-Lautrec. Through my own organic contemplation, I am reminded that art does not merely imitate life, but that it informs my own.

Zoe Hopkins attended the Brearley School and will be a freshman at Harvard in the Fall.