December 14, 2020
El Greco’s St. Jerome
Every time I see El Greco’s St. Jerome, it seems as if the subject of the painting, peering down at me from on high, is about to lift his finger from the canvas and wag it at me for some forgotten transgression.
My relationship with the painting changed completely in 2001, when, with a group of friends, I went to the Frick to see El Greco: Themes and Variations, an exhibition of seven of the artist’s works. St. Jerome was no longer in his usual perch above the fireplace in the Living Hall but now—along with two other versions of the portrait—was displayed at a more conventional height in the Oval Room.
So there I was, facing the venerable saint at eye level, not once but three times. That’s when it hit me—this was a portrait of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, poet, and translator. I needed to immediately confirm that I wasn’t delusional; I turned to my right and started to call my friend Maggie’s name, only to stop mid-M as I caught the gaze of a stately-looking woman, staring at me as if to say, “Young lady, you are in a museum.” My throat went dry. I could feel my face flushing with flashbacks of nuns in high school. I gulped, took a deep breath, willed my face to smile, and whispered, “Magnificent, isn’t it?” Moving on swiftly to the Purification of the Temple, I was delighted to spy a somewhat scruffier version of St. Jerome/Beckett in the group of Apostles to Christ’s left.
I’ve told this story to several friends who have also found a resemblance between St. Jerome and Beckett, which is very appropriate, given that they were both writers and translators. Beckett is said to have admired Old Master paintings, but I don’t know that he ever saw this particular work. If he had, I wonder whether he would have seen his face reflected in the saint’s visage. It would have made for one hell of a play.
El Greco (1541–1614), St. Jerome, 1590–1600. Oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. (110.5 x 95.3 cm)
Staff Favorites is a series of personal reflections by Frick staff members about works of art in the permanent collection. In January 2021, the Frick—in association with DelMonico Books/D.A.P. New York—published a collection of texts in a similar vein by prominent artists, writers, and other cultural figures, each sharing how a work of art at the museum has moved or inspired them. Titled The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, the anthology is made possible by The Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.