- Historic Sites
Too Many Philosophers
When Winifred Smith Rieber confidently agreed to paint a group portrait of America’s five pre-eminent philosophers, she had no idea it would be all but impossible even to get them to stay in the same room with one another.
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
“I’ve thought a lot,” he said, “about that multiple, tenuous, vagrant something philosophers call personality. But I never knew how an artist went about transforming it into paint on canvas. What, exactly, do you think as you first start your painting?” he asked. Mother, who couldn’t work and be probed at the same time, answered dizzily, “I’m painting, not thinking.”
This didn’t quiet Royce. He was immediately off into another line of questioning. Finally, mother had to ask him please to keep his mouth closed: she couldn’t paint something that was always in motion, could she? He snapped his lips together, arranged his face into a rigid mask of discomfort, and the painting began.
When the posing was over, Royce relaxed and took out his cigar. This cigar was apparently the big event of his day. He made a ceremony of it, smoking slowly and with concentrated enjoyment. When the stub grew too short to hold, he spiked it on the point of his knife for a last pull. While he smoked, he seemed to forget “poor ugly me”; mother said his face lit up with its own unique and inner beauty.
George Herbert Palmer was the last of the triumvirate to come for his sitting and was the easiest to paint. It was a joy to be with him. Santayana said of Mr. Palmer that he was the only member of their department who had learned the art of eloquent simplicity.
Mother knew Mr. Palmer better than the others, having once painted a portrait of his wife, Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley’s first president, who had died tragically young. While he sat posing, he liked to talk about her and to recite some of the poems she had written to him. He knew them all by heart. A mere stem of a man with huge bristling eyebrows and a monstrous mustache covering most of the lower part of his face, Mr. Palmer was not a romantic-looking person. To mother it seemed incongruous to hear these words of young love pouring through the gray blanket of hair on his lip. Recited Mr. Palmer: “In the splendor/ Deep and tender/ Hushed I meet you/ Touch and greet you/ Oh my best!”
On and on went Mr. Palmer’s musical voice, winding its sweetness through Emerson Hall. He forgot mother. He forgot the portrait. He was back in the spring with the girl he had loved. This little old man behind his huge eyebrows and mustache had known—to use his own phrase—“the profusion of exultant life.”
At last the painting was finished. But mother wasn’t satisfied with it. The space where Santayana should have stood bothered her; so did Münsterberg’s empty chair. A chair with no one sitting in it didn’t make sense, she thought. She painted it out. This left a vacant spot. She painted it back again. In and out went Münsterberg’s chair. At last it was time to deliver the painting to Harvard. Back went the chair once more, and there it remains.
The portrait of James, Royce, and Palmer still hangs in Emerson Hall. With them are the phantoms of Santayana and Münsterberg, who really belonged in the group.
“I was too young when I knew these men,” mother wrote me years later. “Blessings touch us so lightly that before we can even name them they are gone. It has made me mindful of the present. Each day I look about me and ask myself what riches am I missing that I may later sorrow to have lost?”