Jan 8, 2012

I've Made Peace with the Gay Philosopher

Are you familiar with this character, this painting, "The Gay Philosopher" by Henry Major?

He was a ubiquitous presence in my life growing up - he scared me. Grandma had to move this painting, actually a tintogravure of the original, from the upstairs bedrooms to the dining room because I couldn't sleep with him hanging there.

Grandma hated it, too, but I didn't know that until I brought mom home to live with me.

I knew she was crazy about the painting, though, so I brought it here with her, and hung it where she could see it with all the other pictures and memories; memories of her wedding, her children, holidays, family and friends.

She loved telling the nurses and aides and volunteers her stories, her life history, cataloged in those pictures, as well sharing her delight in a snapshot of her life, held in the painting of Uncle Herman.

“Uncle Herman?” ?!!? !! Yes, I remember her calling The Gay Philosopher that, and I do remember that I thought he was a real relative, and how much that dismayed me. The man is a bum – a slope shouldered, wrinkled coat, squashed hat hobo, but with a string tie and a sassy single-bud yellow boutonniere.

There was a real uncle of mom’s in the family stories, a sort of hobo, Uncle Bill, a transient who had left her a few dollars and a trunk full of stuff her kids could paw through in the 1950s; was this him?

If I hadn't brought her here, if I hadn't had all these pictures, and that print, I probably wouldn't have heard half her stories.

I thought I had, but we didn't get along most of my life. I was lucky to have those last two years with her.

Mom had bought The Gay Philosopher from The Minature Shop, 526 Union Street, in downtown Seattle; as a young woman she was a bookkeeper for a mortgage company - it was a Father's Day present - and Grandpa loved it. He and mom shared a finely tuned sense of humor that often had me laughing into silliness.

If you look into the eyes of “Uncle Herman” you can see what they knew – that teasing look and sly smile inviting you into the joke, the brilliantly-honed edge of their sarcasm and satire, the cutting remarks that were, nonetheless, harmless but hilarious to family and friends.

The solid brush strokes and strong red coat but muted colors of orange and yellow and brown and black create an unassuming portrait of this gentleman who doesn't worry even as he doesn't seem to labor at anything.

The bum was a fine character in Grandpa's repertoire of scalawags. Hallelujah! I'm a Bum was a song he sang to us all the time. In my mind, The Gay Philosopher is the Hallelujah Bum in Grandpa's song.

I'm positive there were two paintings by Henry Major in the house - but no one agrees with me on that memory. I called the other creepy painting, "The Sergeant," because this one had "Major" on it (I was five, I didn't know about artist signatures, so what can I say?).

I had no idea its real name was "The Gay Philosopher" until I hung it up here - the story line is attached to the back, titled, "Why Worry."

Henry Major was born in 1889, ten years before Grandpa, and died in 1948 before the age of 60. He came from Hungary, and worked in Vienna and London as a caricaturist before coming to America in the 1920s. He took up painting in his later years. He was buried in the dunes on the East Coast. I don't know the copyright date for The Gay Philosopher – but today I like it.

I think mom was more like him than I ever imagined, certainly more than what she could imagine she would become, at the time she brought it home to Grandpa.



Akathunder said...

I love the story...

Anonymous said...

Irene said...

Just found this today, after a family get-together. My grandparents had this painting when their children were growing up. The kids named him "Uncle Ray." Odd coincidence! He disappeared for decades and just turned up in the back of a closet. He was brought to a family Christmas gathering and hilarity ensued.