In 1863, five years before his death at age 86, the French painter J-A-D Ingres completed a small, jewel-like canvas he titled The Golden Age. It is a gentle, luxuriant fantasy, this little picture. Blue mountains rise in the distance, and the air seems hung with gilded mist. The afternoon light burnishes green trees to a warm russet and sparkles off the foam of a burbling spring. All around, standing and lounging, tiny naked figures rejoice in their perfect health and youth, soft as children and strong as warriors. They pluck fruits and graceful harps beneath the eyes of marble gods.
A lifelong worshipper of beauty, Ingres no doubt envied these little figures—and loved them. His heart must have strained to be among them in their effortless splendor. For in 1863, not only was Ingres himself in relatively poor form (sagging eyelids, drooping mouth, and furrowed brow, as a late self-portrait shows), but so was his country. Ingres had lived to see three revolutions and other coups d’état; another would follow shortly after his death. Time lurched forward in paroxysms of violence; many lived in fear. Only art (and maybe religion, if one was so minded) promised a kind of fleeting peace.
For Ingres, art and religion were inseparable. The world was tawdry, but God was sublime. The world was complaining, unimaginative, petty; God was all serenity and unfurling grace. As revolutionaries trampled with muddy boots upon every sacred thing, the saints in heaven extended soft hands in benediction. They were not troubled in their quiet, starry place. There was really no difference, for Ingres, between naked nymphs in a golden wood and Joan of Arc in her gleaming armor. Both abided in placid perfection, with the calm faces and smiling eyes of those who had arrived – who yearned no more.
The theme of a “golden age” —a milieu of completion and consummation, potentials fulfilled and wounds healed—was popular in Western art during the late nineteenth century. In Europe, these subjects had the wistful aura of a paradise lost; Ingres’s tiny, nude creatures in his 1863 picture are so palpably unreal, and so indifferent to the viewer, as to seem unreachable. In America, meanwhile, there was more confidence. American painters, with rose-colored spectacles, imagined they could bring a new “golden age” to life in the so-called New World. The tokens of their hope—perfect, naked gods and goddesses reading books, doing science, and tilling soil—can still be seen on the walls of old public buildings like the Library of Congress.
I think there is something in the American mind that always expects imminent arrival. If only we can get over that one hang-up, or find the right life-hack, or get in front of the right power broker, we’ll have finally “made it.” We’ll get to flex our muscles and be our “true selves” and run, run, run, with the wind in our hair, tripping over nothing, until in the end we dissolve beatifically into the light. It might not happen when or how we expect, but it will happen. Because we have a right to fulfill our potential. We must be maximized, fully exploited, not one drop wasted, no excellence unexplored. In fact, God will make it happen. At length, if we follow the breadcrumbs just right, and if we suss out every hidden rule, he will bring us triumphant to the mountaintop, where we’ll square our shoulders and brandish our limbs in triumph. We’ll “soar with wings like eagles” and “walk and not be faint” until the end.
And so one reaches middle (or late) age and asks, “Have I arrived yet? Where are my wings?”
Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres had been the most famous painter in Europe during his heyday. Perhaps he was “soaring” then. But the times passed him by, and he became a sentimental old man, doodling his daydreams for smaller and smaller audiences. He learned the hard way that no one ever “arrives” —that there is no “golden age.” There are only fits and starts, over mountains and through valleys, on a journey toward the unknown. To stop and assess one’s “arrival” is to exit the flow—to prefer a snapshot or cross-section to life lived. And, something vulnerable to cross-section is usually dead.
Thus Ingres’s favorite theme of his later years, recapitulated at least seven times before his death in 1867, was the Eucharistic wafer, the blessed bread. It may seem curious that an artist as skilled as Ingres should choose as his main motif a small, white circle, but in other ways it’s not curious at all.
The sign of Christ on earth, of his Body given, the Eucharistic wafer is sublimely unsatisfying. It is tiny, nondescript, banal. It must be eaten again and again. It neither glows with heavenly light, nor quenches like ambrosia. It neither dazzles like the sun, nor calms like the moon. It is like the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer—just enough for the moment—so that we are bound to proceed in uncertainty and humble trust.
It says, as Ingres the old man knew, that we don’t arrive until we’ve arrived. Arrived, that is, at the sea of glass, gleaming with golden-white fire, a circle ringed by the children of God, plucking harps and crying “holy.” The beauty here would burn eyes to coal and tear flesh asunder. We have more aging to do to survive its brightness. I, for one, thank my merciful God that I haven’t arrived there just yet.