What a delight and a relief it is, in the midst of all those mincing portraits of trussed-up, wig-wearing ancestors of full-blood Boston Brahmins — almost all of them painted by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) — to come across this strange little piece of amputated wood, less than six inches squared.
You’ll find it at the Museum of Fine Arts, in a little display case that also contains some miniature portraits and one or two other things I can never remember, because I’m so taken instead with this.
The wood, cut from a doorframe in Lincoln, can be found directly opposite “Watson and the Shark,” the second version of Copley’s great masterpiece — a picture that made his reputation in England, which made the MFA’s reputation in the eyes of countless children, and which stirs the blood of all who harbor hopes of salvation.
But there are two types of salvation, and what I like so much about Copley is that he painted them both. One is rather singular, and frankly a little histrionic. You need an exotic setting like the harbor in Havana, and a story that involves circling sharks, gratuitous nudity, a chewed-off foot, and the imminent prospect of a dramatic rescue.
The other kind of salvation takes place in your kitchen or dining room. It comes in the evening, after the tribulations of yet another day, or week (you feel it most acutely on a Friday), and hopefully with friends around. It’s called conviviality. Humor. Good company. Its salvific properties are well known.
What’s also well known is that it’s helped along by a bottle of wine. But what happens if the corkscrew is nowhere to be found?
This near-apocalyptic scenario (which I’ve experienced personally on more than one occasion) unfolded one day in the late 1760s. Copley had been invited to the Codman House in Lincoln to paint the portrait of Dr. Charles Russell, a relation by marriage to the Codmans and at that time the owner of the house.
Copley was offered wine — perhaps at the end of a painting session and (I like to imagine) with other guests arriving. Pleased with his day’s work, he accepted. So now imagine Russell’s mortification when no corkscrew could be found!
Like the consummate host who throws his own glass to the floor when his guest accidentally breaks a glass, Copley proved himself a consummate guest. Taking on the role of Zeuxis (the Greek painter who, in a competition, painted a bunch of grapes so realistic that birds came down to peck at it), he took out his brushes and painted this corkscrew, hanging from a nail, on the Codman’s door frame.
Did the wine flow more freely as a result? Human ingenuity — and the thirst for wine, wit, and conviviality — is not to be underestimated. You can be certain a way was found.Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@