My Life in Art


Nicholas Delbanco

  I have in front of me a black, spring-loaded binder titled ART. A smaller version of the title has been pasted on the spine. The sturdy pebbled folder measures 11½ by 9½ inches, and the whole is an inch thick. Inside are fifty-two pages (one for each week of the year, though I doubt this was intentional) of yellowing foolscap: typed pages with glued-on illustrative photographs and postcards from the history of painting. Its author signed himself proudly, Nicholas F. Delbanco—in an upward-rising scrawl of black ink—and his title was and is: THE STORY OF PAINTING FROM CAVE ART TO MODERN TIMES.
  Elsewhere, I called myself “Nicky”; I was eleven years old. The dedication page reads:

To my Father
For his kind help
and encouragement that
he gave me throughout my book

On the next page there’s a more expansive prefatory acknowledgment: “I would like to thank my father for his help in supplying material and helping me learn my subject. To my mother for her kind encouragement and faith in my book. To my uncle, an art specialist, for his talks to me and helping assemble my book. To my teacher, Mrs. Landis, for her helping me to arrange my book. To my elder cousin, for his encouragement. To all these people and many more for their very kind and heartening help.”


  I’m struck by the term, “my subject,” and the threefold iteration of “my book,” then the earnest thanks for “kind and heartening help.” The author was, it seems, precocious as well as pretentious; his table of contents reads:


1. How Painting Started
2. Art in the Middle Ages
3. The Beginning of the Renaissance
4. The High Renaissance
5. Leonardo Da Vinci
6. Michelangelo and Raphael
7. The Triumph of Light
8. Towards Revolution
9. A New Breed of Artists
10. Painting in our own Time.

That page concludes, in emulation of works cited in the volume’s Bibliography, “Copyright 1954. First Edition.”

*   *   *

  Most of the photographs and postcards would have come from my father’s collection; in his studio he kept a box of small-scale copies of prized pictorial art. Sometimes I traced a figure—a stone-age bison or head by Jan Van Eyck—in pencil on the page. The typing is careful, precise. I used my mother’s Smith Corona, with its twelve-point elite type. On the relatively few occasions when I made a spelling mistake—this was before the era of “white-out” or spell-check—I corrected the errors by hand. Once or twice (as in “faze” for “phase”) a spelling error persists. Our author failed to include a “List of Illustrations,” but pasted in forty or more. The glue must have been high quality, for the pictures remain here attached.
  There was, of course, a limit to what “Nicky” knew and could report; a discussion of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” for example, reads in its entirety: “This was one of his greatest, if not his greatest, works of art.” (p. 19). But here’s a more characteristic paragraph: “Another Italian painter, Simone Martini, spent some time in Northern Europe. He showed them the new Italian art and the French in turn told him about their Gothic style. Finally the two arts mixed together and a style affectionately called ‘International Gothic’ developed.” (p. 8).
  The overall effect is studious and serious—almost comically so, in retrospect—and it’s hard not to read with a smile. The writer struck the pose of a dispassionate historian and scholar, describing the work of Gainsborough and Giorgione, of Hals and Hobbema, some fifty named painters in all. And there’s a through-line to his inquiry: who were the great ones and how were they great and why do they matter today?
  This “greatest hits” aspect of the essay is hard to ignore. An urge to generalize runs through the text; a desire to make lists and rank practitioners was strong. ART is filled with such pronouncements as: “Nevertheless, the seventeenth century was one of the most important milestones in the history of art. Truly, it was the triumph of light!” (p. 30). Or, of the eighteenth century, “From an artistic point of view England had hardly been looked upon as a leader. But now it began to develop artists—and many good ones—too.” (p. 32)
  Why, I wonder, did I embark on this project; was it conceived of for school? I have only the most distant memory of “Mrs. Landis,” who was my seventh-grade teacher and perhaps suggested a research assignment; she would no doubt have been nonplussed by what young Nicky produced. Industrious, even indefatigable, our author tracked—as in one of the works cited in his bibliography—"The History of Painting.“ Once the school year finished, I turned twelve years old.

*   *   *

  Of my father’s amateur’s interest in making art, and my uncle’s professional expertise, I will have more to write later; of my “elder cousin's” help, I can remember nothing, though he might have provided a postcard or three. What strikes me, these many years after the fact, is the self-assurance of the fledgling critic; he concludes his Preface with such generalities as "People sometimes see different things in the same patterns.” And “The word ‘imagine’ means to make an image or a picture in your mind.” Then, finally, “I am sure as you read through this book that you will realize the immensity and greatness of the people who helped painting become a great source of joy to countless millions.” (Ibid.)
  It has taken me a goodly while to again “read through this book.” And though its author’s imagined audience was notional at best, “my book,” in its first and only edition, has lasted a long time. So I find myself remembering that ambitious child who was “sure…you (would) read,” and his desire to instruct a waiting world as to the glories of “painting…a great source of joy.” Where did he come from and how did he know what he knew?
  Here’s a representative paragraph from his discussion of cave art.

What were these pictures for? They could have been meant to help the hunter, because some of the pictures have spears sticking into the imaginary animal. Perhaps the caveman threw stones at his masterpiece. There could also have been a spiritual meaning behind the paintings. No one will ever know for sure. A good interpretation however is that the man thought if he killed the image of the animal first, he would have no trouble slaughtering the real thing. (p. 1)

  In the ensuing years, I’ve visited such sites as Lascaux and Altamira, and I’m not certain I can improve upon that statement: “No one will ever know for sure.” The language of informed inquiry is of course more scholarly than the above, but the kid got it more or less right. He writes about the hungry hunter, immured in walls and on the point of starvation. “At such times he would frequently think of meat and if he finally clubbed a buffalo in his joy he might paint a picture of the beast. Since the men lived in a cave and the cave walls were usually rough, the picture would probably follow an outline of bumps on the surface of the cave.”
  I am neither editing nor eliding this; it’s exactly the language he used. He being I, a quiet inward-facing boy who had recently recovered from rheumatic fever and spent long months in bed. “My Life in Art”—the title of this inquiry—repeats the title of the autobiography of the great Russian actor and acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski (1869-1938). As a theorist of drama, he was passionate in his defense of naturalism, the “method” of acting as though art and life reflected and refracted each other, intertwined. That “Art” is something on which one might spend one’s “Life” seemed, to Stanislavski, self-evident. The scholarly child who read in his bed was emulating that ideal, though in a different genre and mode. His governing assumption, here, is that art might “hold a mirror up to nature” and be by it enlivened.
  Too, it allowed him/me to pronounce on history. The text is shot through with such passages as:

The colonies were now old enough to have their own artists. The two most famous of these painters were called Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. These men, however, did not stay in America long enough to participate in the Revolution. They returned to their mother country to do some exhibiting. These men had such success in London that they stayed there for good. West became extremely famous and was elected president of the British academy of painting. This was somewhat like the French academy but was a lot less severe. (p. 33)

Or: By now the dream of Napoleon had expired. Gone was the Roman influence. Artists did different paintings and used different techniques. The subject of this painting by Delacroix is “The Abduction of Rebecca.” (A full-page black and white reproduction of that oil has been glued to the subsequent sheet.) His picture, surprisingly enough, has much the same style as that of Durer. There are wide flowing brush strokes and a lot of movement. Truly, it is an excellent picture. (p. 37)

  How did I gather such information; what judgments was I so complacently making, and value-system expressing? Our would-be Kenneth Clark or Bernard Berenson felt confident, or so it seems, of his aesthetic opinions, by and large approbatory. He didn’t bother with work he disliked, or art that failed to impress him; the governing note of his discourse is the note of praise. Advancing from Giotto to Matisse, reporting on their several “ways of seeing”—to borrow John Berger’s excellent phrase—he ruminated on style.
  At this remove it’s hard for me to enter into his eleven-year old head or heart, but I think his pronouncements had something to do with a desire to join in long-standing tradition, to claim a present part in the history of painting. If you can trace your human ancestry to men using brushes and chisels, or coloring rock with upraised palms, why not assume that art has always been consequential and should be revered? To this present witness, it’s more than a little surprising that the not-yet-adolescent was so steadfast in his faith. What intrigues me is his confidence, his wish to offer opinions—though god knows how he/I came by them.
  To wit:

Raphael then worked for a long time in Rome redecorating royal buildings. He there did a tremendous amount of Frescoes. While in Rome, he also did some architectural work. This was rather unusual for him so he went back to his great pallet (sic) and easel. (p. 23)


In Venice Mannerism wasn’t so popular but by 1550 it was firmly established. It showed very well in the works of the greatest Venetian Master since Titian. This man’s name was Tintoretto. He was truly one of the world’s finest artists. This man used quick short stokes of the brush and created quite an effect. Here is one of his best pictures. (p.16)

Then I pasted in an illustration of Tintoretto’s “Miracle of St. Mark” and proceeded to the work of Leonardo (of whose oils and drawings there are three examples). All these decades later the postcards and the photographs adhere to the page; it’s a family album of sorts. The pencil sketches and typed notations mark both place and time. And though the prefatory note is personal, the text reads like an effort, now, of impersonal reclamation—or even, perhaps, restoration. Above it hover the spirits of my dead father, my long-dead mother and uncle; from it emanates the odor of my childhood home.

*   *   *

  That home had much art on the walls. As I have written elsewhere (in an essay titled “A Visit to the Gallery”), and in an adult’s voice:

Other children spent time with their fathers playing baseball or fishing or working on cars. I spent Saturday mornings at his side, painting or sitting for portraits, because he was a more than Sunday painter and an accomplished one. Several of his portraits are in fact in public places—the National Portrait Gallery, Harvard College, the Museum of the City of New York. He never quite had the daring or drive to make a career of it and was a collector more than a creator. But he had genuine talent and did love to draw and, in his great old age declared, “A painting a day keeps the doctor away.” When he came home from business trips, it was always with something acquired en route: a Zuni Bowl or hermaphroditic standing figure with breasts and penis I’d stare at it in wonder, an etching by Rembrandt or woodcut by Durer or poster by his favorite, Henri Toulouse de Lautrec. Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant turned his broad back above my childhood bed; Yvette Guilbert smiled soulfully down; La Goulue lifted her leg. There were oil paintings in the dining room by Lovis Corinth and Chagall. And always, when we traveled, it was to the museum or the monastery or the chapel on the edge of town my father took us first.

Tellingly, and for the only two times the boy used the first person plural in ART:

We have a painting by Marc Chagall in our house. He strikes you as if he is in a dream, like he’s in a dream world. And truly he is. It is a very hard job to be able to tell what things look like in your inner eye. But Chagall has done it. (p.45)


The artists of this time, strangely enough, began not to paint pictures of great favorites but to portray poor laborers. The leader of these artists was a man called Gustave Courbet. (We have a Courbet at home and my impression of his painting is this.) Courbet thought a lot like the old Master, Caravaggio. He was not so interested in painting scenes unless they were scenes which could be happening. Courbet really gave a wonderful depth to his pictures and made you feel like you were watching the very scene. (p. 39)

  We did in fact have a Courbet at home—a somewhat dull green landscape hanging opposite my seat at the dining room table; my elder brother got to look at a plate of oysters by Lovis Corinth. For a while there was a naked life-size torso, also, of a woman sculpted by Rodin, but when our mother caught me staring at the statue’s breasts too fixedly she made my father dispose of the lady on the pedestal. He exchanged it for a set of six small naked dancers, whose thumbed protuberances (the sculptor first worked his bronzes in clay, then plaster) failed to ignite my imagination and stood safely on display.
  So art was all around me, and had been from the start. Scattered everywhere throughout the house were African head-rests and spindles and fabrics and masks. Above the entrance door hung a black-bearded bug-eyed demon mask from Bali, which I was convinced would frighten off any would-be burglar. Tribal horns and spears and shields festooned the living room wall. I don’t mean to overstate the case; our parents were not major collectors, but every time I climbed the stairs I climbed past Goya’s Tauromaquia, a set of etchings rendering the stages of a bullfight. It was the air I breathed.
  So it seemed only natural that, when I came to write things down, I wrote about visual art. Here is my final pronouncement:

All artists are men—great men. Whether he is an unknown caveman, a Leonardo da Vinci, whether he is Toulouse Lautrec or Albrecht Durer, if he is called Goya or Picasso he is still a man, united in the same purpose, that of putting what he thinks down on wood or paper. Only the way we imagine things and the way we put them down on canvas has changed through the centurys (sic). Painting still is, and always will be a noble business.


Nicky Delbanco

  Young Nicky would not today use the generalized term “men” for artists, and he would spell “centuries” correctly. Nor do I quite know what the author meant by “putting what he thinks down on wood.” But by and large the clarion call proclaimed by that eleven year old remains my credo still, and I’m struck by the through-line of his conviction that “painting is a noble business.”

*   *   *

  It was so, for my father, all his life. The juxtaposition of the two words—“noble” and “business” —seems telling to me now; he never could quite reconcile the two. As a businessman he was “artistic”; as a painter he was always hoping to earn profit from the work. This was, I think, a lifelong duality if not opposition, and it confused him from the start. Born in Hamburg, Germany, he was the second son of the Director of an Import-Export Firm; his father’s father had been in the business too. The family was prosperous and well-established. Although our surname, Delbanco, is Italian, my ancestors moved north from Venice in the mid-seventeenth century, having been bankers (a.k.a. moneylenders) there as long ago as 1570. They were the kind of upper middle-class Jews who felt very much at home in and connected to society, and my paternal grandmother did have an eye for art. She collected such German Expressionists as Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde and wore jewelry fashioned for her by Karl Schmidt-Rotluff. In her last years—she died more or less blind, in her mid-nineties—she herself would peeringly daub at a canvas, painting flowers there, or clouds.
  Early on—Hamburg and Paris were the twin centers of such interest—the family acquired African totems and masks. At a time when Picasso and others first paid attention to African art, my grandmother too fell under its spell; old photographs of the living room in Hamburg show tribal figures on tables and glowering down from pedestals. Although only a small portion of the things they owned survived the ravages of Hitler and the plundering zeal of the Nazis, theirs was a history of ownership as well as the desire to make something of and on their own.
  My father was born in 1909 (he died nearly a century later) and from the very beginning had what his parents called—not, it seems, without raised eyebrows— “an artistic bent.” He took drawing and art lessons in Hamburg; in America, once we’d moved here after a stint in London, he studied with Hans Hoffman and, later, Jack Levine. Towards the end of his life he made sculpture and went “abstract” in his compositions, trying to be part of what he called the zeitgeist and failing to break through. Although he won a prize or two and had several exhibitions, even a glowing notice in the New York Times, he never “made it” past a kind of affable amateur status.
  Some of this, perhaps, had to do with the luck of the draw, some of it also had to do with his visible role as a customer and, in the end, art dealer. For several years he joined forces with and worked as an American representative of the eminent Swiss gallerist and collector, Ernst Beyeler. This put him in the purchaser and seller category as opposed to that of maker, and those who paid him visits did so more to look at the work of Piranesi or Monet than that of Delbanco. But mostly I think his lack of success had to do with an error of judgment. He failed to honor his talent for drawing—preferring to work in an abstract and figure-ground mode for which he had no special gift. In the course of his long life, he produced hundreds of paintings, but it is the portraits that count.
  As a portrait painter, he had impressive skill. Always, he kept a small notebook in his pocket, and at concerts or plays he would sketch the performer; in restaurants he would draw the waitress or waiter and offer their likeness as part of the tip. His studies of such figures as Max Eastman and Robert Moses incisively captured veiled aspects of their character; his career-long series of self-portraits unsparingly represent stages of age. His landscapes and still-lifes were fluent, his eye for line and color keen. I loved my father, and there is of course subjective judgment here involved, but I think it also the objective truth that he was a real artist who might have made a “go” of it except for the conflicting claims of being the head of a household and keeping food in the pantry and cars in the garage. My mother had no interest in conspicuous consumption, but she had high standards and was wont to say, “We are not rich enough to afford anything but the very best.”
  This meant, in effect, that my father worked much of his life in order to meet her exacting expectations. Raised in a mansion where nothing was denied her, she wished the same for her sons. The centuries-old tradition that the “head of the household” be the provider was one her husband never questioned, and he drove off every morning to work without complaint. If he felt trapped by the trappings of bourgeois respectability he never said so, and since our expenditures were large—three boys in private school, then college—his income had to keep pace. When he sold the Chagall, Courbet, or Durer, it was to keep the household flush. Only towards the end did he wonder aloud, and then only musingly, what would have happened if he chose instead to follow the road not taken, and had tried to be an artist foremost and first.
  In the way of such things, it was the expectation that the eldest son, my uncle Gustav, would take over the reins of the family business. But Gustav either had or feigned a nervous breakdown, saying he had no gift for or interest in commerce, and my grandparents relented. They gave him some art with which to bankroll his apprenticeship, and he made a sustained study of old master prints, then produced a Ph.D. on the work of Abraham Bloemart, the Dutch painter and engraver (1566-1651). I like to imagine him in the Rijksmuseum or the Alte Pinakothek, calling up sheet after sheet of Rembrandt or Goltzius and learning what he chose to call their “handwriting.” Soon enough, he put that knowledge to commercial use.
  I will write of his gallery hereafter, and my time in it, but the present point is that my father was left holding the bag and more or less conscripted into his own father’s line of work. He was allowed a Wanderjahre in which to paint and see the world, and would tell me stories of his sojourn in America—living in Greenwich Village and studying at the Art Students League. In New York, he attended Weill and Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper in order to improve his English, since it had been presented here as “The Threepenny Opera.” Then he took a Greyhound bus cross-country and told me, unabashedly, that he failed to understand a proposition made to him, in Santa Fe, by a consort of the photographer Paul Strand, who suggested they might share a bed for the night.
  How rapidly his innocence became experience is not for me to know, but in the early 1930’s and his own mid-twenties he became a bristle merchant, returning to Hamburg to work in the Import-Export firm. For decades thereafter—first in England, then America, where he opened a branch of the business—his focus was on international trade and the sale of such commodities as Chunking 2 ¾ bristles or Kolinsky sable brushes. His clients were painters and house-painters and those who manufactured industrial brushes and hair and nail brushes and brooms.
  “Oh, what a falling-off was there,” says Hamlet of his mother’s decision to marry his uncle, once her beloved husband dies. And though there’s nothing tragic or Shakespearean in the story of my father’s fate, it does seem to me a falling-off; he would have been far happier as an architect or artist. Instead he had been dutiful and followed his own father’s lead.

*   *   *

  The painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) was a leading proponent of German Impressionism. He was born and died in Berlin, my mother’s natal city. Of Ashkenazi descent, and wealthy, he produced more than 200 commissioned portraits (of such notables as Albert Einstein and Paul von Hindenberg) as well as a series of self-portraits and portraits of his wife. He produced, in addition, many studies of landscape and horses and still-lifes and street-scenes, a man nearly always at work.
  In 1920 he became the president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, resigning in 1933 when the academy decided no longer to exhibit the work of Jewish artists. He would have been forced to do so in any case under new restrictive laws, and when he died in The Third Reich the death went unacknowledged. Now once again, however, he’s known as an authentic master—the German counterpart, though on a slightly smaller scale, of Édouard Manet.
  In 1926, nearing the end of his lengthy career, he painted my grandmother Frances née Lehmann Bernstein. She sits in a soft chair in what I assume was her own house, on Branitzer Platz—though possibly she went to Liebermann’s residence, not the other way around. The background is indeterminate, a soft wash of color without identifying detail; the only specific component of the portrait other than her person is the chair. Wood-rimmed and padded, with armrests, it’s the sort of fauteuil that would have been fashionable as well as common at the time. Her dress too is fashionable if undistinguished, a monochromatic brown. A white silk scarf lies knotted loosely at her throat.
  Frances—I knew her as “Omi”—gazes straight ahead and slightly down. It’s a sizable picture, life-size or a little larger, and though I remember her as petite and elderly she’s on the verge of monumental here. Her face dominates the portrait; her hands are crossed in her lap. Her knees are hidden by her brown dress; her legs drop down below the canvas’s bottom edge, so we see no feet.
  In a more formal fashion, and with less inventiveness, the painting echoes Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. Upright of posture, pensive—or, perhaps, merely patient—my grandmother stares at the painter, therefore viewer, her head on a slight tilt. The likeness antedates my personal knowledge of its subject by some twenty years, and time and the river had done their slow work on the unlined face here shown. Yet the visage staring out and down at me is nonetheless familiar: an intelligent woman, composed.
  The composition itself hung in the downstairs library of the house in Larchmont, New York where, once we settled in America, my brothers and I were raised. It must have been a tutelary presence for Frances’s daughter, my mother, reminding her of what was lost and what remained. Omi played the piano; she loved purple grapes and proper table manners and the poetry of Heinrich Heine; by the time I knew her—perhaps this had always been so—she did not join the conversation on politics or policy, the ways of the workaday world. (My paternal grandmother, Elsa—she of the penchant for African art—was different; she would complain that her capacious bed-and-sitting room in my uncle’s house in London was less sizable than the Hamburg bathroom accorded to the upstairs maid.) In my hearing, at least, Frances never voiced regret for all that had been taken away and, from her large home, plundered; her disposition was complaisant and her manner gracious, kindly, and all of this I think I see in Liebermann’s fine portrait of a woman lost in thought.

*   *   *

In “A Visit to the Gallery,” I wrote about what was lost.

My maternal grandparents knew enough to leave Berlin for Paris as the Third Reich grew more threatful, though they left much behind. One of the things they took with them was a small oil painting by one of the six “founders” of Impressionism, Alfred Sisley. It’s a beautiful canvas and a well-documented one—a boat hauled up on the shingle, in an open air dry dock: Bateaux en Reparation à St.-Mammes (Boats under Repair at St. Mammes). It has Sisley’s signature water, beach, and sky; it’s brilliantly composed and colorful—a kind of motion in stasis they carried with them, I suppose, as an emblem of what might be saved. When it came time to flee Paris, they entrusted the oil to a friend. It’s a long and complicated history, with dealers’ names like Cassirer and Durand-Ruel involved, with the thing hidden in an attic in the environs of Vichy and then somehow sent to New York and L.A. and just now fetching up for sale at Sotheby’s in Manhattan.
 I know about this because my grandfather did lodge a claim, as long ago as 1950, with the German government for reparation for confiscated art and household goods. And there are organizations that help with the recovery effort and are superbly competent at research; I know, for example, the train my grandparents attempted to take out of Paris, the date they were turned back, and the date they succeeded in leaving; I know which camps they were interned in and when they were released. I know who attested to having seen the painting where, and the given names and middle names and surnames of those through whose hands it has passed. I know who claimed to own it and what the claims consist of and how—via the Art Loss Register—they have been disproved. A cousin has a lawyer and the lawyer stopped the sale, and soon enough we’ll know, perhaps, to whom the Sisley properly belongs….

  There was much litigation, expenditure for legal work, and a settlement not properly germane to “My Life in Art.” But the question of inheritance does seem relevant, if only as an emblem of the presence of the past. That “black-bearded bug-eyed demon mask from Bali” now hangs in my own studio and, though I no longer believe it capable of warding off intruders, I write beneath its baleful glare with a sense of protected security: a talisman of things gone by that keeps me at the desk. My grandparents and parents are dead; Bateaux en Reparation has been sold, but in the storehouse of old memory I see the boats they—we—managed to travel on to this brave new world…
  So there Frances hangs, on my cousin Peter’s wall and in the catalogue raisonée of Liebermann’s life’s work. It’s not the “elder cousin” to whom I refer in my prefatory note on ART but rather the son of my mother’s brother, to whom she willed the painting. All this is of no consequence to anyone not directly involved, and soon or late there’ll be none of us left, but the lady in the armchair is likely to endure. As my youthful self observed: “An interesting fact is that the word ‘Abstract’ means ‘To draw away from’” (p. 43). Now let us draw the curtain on her inward-facing gaze.

*   *   *

  My father’s elder brother, Gustav, had—by his own admission—“not a single artistic bone” in his body. But he was a scholar and a connoisseur and, as of the mid 1930’s, a businessman who profited from the “Import and Export” of art. Along with two other equally knowledgeable partners—Henry Roland and Lillian Browse (the latter known as “The Duchess of Cork Street”) —he founded an art gallery in a brick Queen Anne townhouse around the corner from the Burlington Arcade. Their specialty to start with was Old Masters, but they ventured far enough into modernity to represent Walter Sickert and Auguste Rodin. The first two floors of Roland, Browse & Delbanco were exhibition spaces; the basement was for storage and where they sat and chatted during mid-morning tea.
  The top of the building contained more private rooms, where a favored client might look closely at a canvas and where the more important paintings and graphics were stored. All day long my uncle climbed or came down the steep flights of stairs, often carrying a work of art in one hand and a smoking pipe in the other. He was small and lean and wiry, with a shock of snow-white hair. He had bright blue-eyes and a pale, sharp-featured face—in his final years he powdered it pink—and paid no attention to social niceties. He would neglect to blow his dripping nose or forget appointments but would remember, always, the location or the picture frame and subject of a Murillo or Mantegna he’d encountered years before.
  One story, possibly apocryphal, had to do with one of his clients, the King of Sweden. Of a given afternoon the King swept in with his entourage, and my uncle descended the stairs then peered in his near-sighted way at the waiting visitor. “My good sir,” Gustav said, “I perfectly remember your face, but I’m afraid I can’t remember your name.” The King stuck out his hand and—an argument for royalty—responded, “Mr. Delbanco, I’m very glad to see you again. But I’m afraid I cannot remember your face!”
  Absent-minded and inattentive, brusque, my uncle nonetheless had charm abounding and a puckish sense of humor. He liked good cheese and claret and the company of women and, after a trip to India, became a vegetarian. By colleagues he was called “Professor” because of his pedantic manner and wide-ranging expertise in and knowledge of the history of art.
  It was, I think, the real thing. An early game I used to play with him went as follows: We would go to a museum or exhibition together—and sometimes, to my certain knowledge, one he’d not visited before. Then I’d run up to an oil or object with its identifying label, and place my hand over the writing and ask him to tell me who was the particular artist or what the general provenance. This held just as true for a fourteenth century wood carving as a Chinese scroll or Dutch landscape or renaissance devotional scene or portrait of a gentleman in furs. It could be Caravaggio, Cimabue, Correggio, or Cranach; it could be Klimt or Kokoschka. My uncle would stand a few feet distant, squinting, holding his unlit pipe, and after several seconds make his pronouncement: X or Y or Z.
  He was never wrong. He always got it right. When I asked him how he knew or could identify the painter, he said “Handwriting”; when I asked him how he knew the region from which an anonymous statue of the Virgin Mary derived and how he’d known, for example, it was not from northern Germany, he said, “Nein, nein, lower Rhine.” Whether the caricaturist was Daumier, Forain, Gilray or Hogarth he always knew which subject they reported on and which historical figure satirized. Vague and forgetful about the diurnal world, the “absent-minded professor” proved accurate on art.
  This was not the case for me. After having graduated from college, in 1963, I returned to London and went to work for Uncle Gustav and his partners in their gallery on Cork Street. By then the art trade was well-established, and the establishment—cater-corner to Bond Street and Saville Row—thrived. Lillian Browse was childless; Henry Roland’s son had no interest in the profession of art dealer, and—again in the way of such things—it was clear though unstated that I would be heir-apparent, if I learned and over time acquired the procedures of the trade.
  I was unsettled, a little, away from home and the girl I loved and, for the first time, living alone. My room was in a boarding house on Wetherby Gardens off Gloucester Road; there the bathroom was collective and the meter yielded, grudgingly, a shilling’s worth of heat. I’d take the tube to work and serve as general dogs-body for the partners and the under-staff, running errands and carrying pictures and sitting at the entrance desk to greet those who walked in from the street. “Good morning, sir,” I’d say, or “Good afternoon, madam,” thinking this was common politeness—until I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it was indeed common politeness. The fellow who shined my shoes in the morning, or came by with tea, would say “Sir” to me, but I shouldn’t do so to gallery patrons because it suggested an inferiority of social rank. Unless in fact they were a Sir, in which case I was supposed to say, “Good morning, Sir William” or, “Good afternoon, Sir John…”
  I learned when to address a Lady by her given or her married name, and what the difference between “Lady Jane” or “Lady McMaster” entailed. I was told to keep a watchful eye on that threadbare, ill-shod fellow in the upstairs gallery because he was either a potential thief or, plausibly, an Earl. I accompanied my uncle to auctions at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and went with him to frame makers and painting studios and business trips to Scotland and, once, to visit the sculptor Henry Moore at home. The world of London’s culture was expansive yet inter-connected; at my uncle’s side I met Sir Kenneth Clark and Cyril Connolly, Iris Murdoch, Elias Canetti and many other authors I was just starting to read. Aldous Huxley was a customer; so were J.B. Priestley and Cecil Day Lewis and the remnants of the Bloomsbury crew. It was a heady time.
  Yet after a few months I found I could not be happy in London; its world was not my world. Although I had been born and, to a degree, raised in England, the social conventions of the place were no longer ones I felt easy with, or wanted to accept. One day my uncle took me aside and said, “This isn’t working, is it? You’re arriving at the gallery later and later each morning, you leave as soon as you can. Why don’t we admit that this isn’t for you; get out of here and write…”
  This is the self-congratulatory version of the story, the one where our young hero espouses democratic principles and renounces the world of privilege and private dealing in favor of his own art. The other version—truer—is that I never knew enough about the field to make a go of it and wasn’t willing to study. Week after month my uncle and I would walk into a room together; he’d know every painting there and I’d know that my feet were wet or that the girl in the corner wasn’t wearing a brassiere or that in twenty minutes I might propose we have lunch. Sometimes, still, I think of it—the road not taken, the life unlived—and wonder what would have happened had my uncle and his partners been a little more interested in, as it were, the succession. I might have stayed in London or opened a gallery-branch in New York. Then, instead of John Q. Public and an interested amateur I might have been professional and full of earned learned opinion and, like my uncle, a crank.
  The last time he came to America he visited my family; he was in his nineties and, in short order, would die. As was the case with my father, a trip to see us in Ann Arbor always included a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the museum in Toledo. Gustav had sold them both some paintings and liked to visit with, as he put it, his “old friends.” On the final day I took him to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art, which was displaying, with a certain amount of fanfare, a terra-cotta warrior and horse from the Han dynasty. These had arrived from Toronto and were being readied for an exhibition which the sponsors claimed—with justification, since it was shortly after the discovery of these buried artifacts—would be the first showing of such treasures in the fifty states.
  My uncle approached, was introduced, and asked if he might offer an opinion for the press. I remember his response. “One of the advantages of great old age,” he said, “is that we need not be respectful of the merely ancient. From an anthropological point of view, these objects have some value. But from an artistic standpoint, they are of course only rubbish.” Then, leaning on his cane, he limped away to view a Max Beckman painting—Begin the Beguin—that he loved.

*   *   *

  Back to that boy who, long years previous, knew the difference between Meindert Hobbema and his teacher, Jacob van Ruisdael. I ask myself now if elective affinity—a predisposition to a subject—is instinctual or earned. Who knows why A can sit at a piano and, with no instruction, pick out a tune, whereas B takes years of music lessons and remains thick-fingered and tone-deaf? Who knows why C remembers poetry with no seeming-effort and D, no matter how serious and scrupulous, forgets? At every dinner table there’s someone who can offer up the middle name of a senator from Iowa and someone else who can’t recall if a politician comes from Indiana or Illinois. We have, each one of us, a skill-set slightly different from our neighbor’s, and there’s not much point in trying to discover the source of the distinction: it’s an apple or an orange, born or bred.
  So when I reread our eleven year old I’m reminded of his love of unearned generality: “Painters began also not only to paint pictures of religious meaning but to make landscapes and human figures. Of course the church tried to rule this down but near the beginning of the 1500’s there were more and more pictures of things around us. This showed a minute pulling away from the stiffness of the church and helped to free men’s minds even more. A very definite trend towards a new life had started!” (p. 11)
  Or: “As I have tried to stress in this book, the styles of different countries could change very quickly. Therefore the realism of the great Dutch masters and the rigidness of the French could be found in many a different country than that of the originator of the style.” (p. 31)
  I won’t quote him further. Young Nicky did possess impressive information, but his text is chock-a-block with pronouncements of this sort: a pedant in the making with a penchant for the overview, a boy who bit off rather more than he could plausibly chew. R.I.P.
  As time wore on, I tried my hand at painting. At my parents’ suggestion I took an “art class” in Larchmont and was instructed by a local teacher how to prepare a canvas or mix paints on a palette. We painted, assiduously, apples and vases and houses and trees; we sketched our teacher’s daughter as she sat in the room with a book. When I brought back a finished canvas for my father’s scrutiny, he squinted, examined it closely, and smilingly shook his head. Then he would pat me on mine. On weekends I would paint by his side, in his third-floor studio, using a small wooden easel propped up beside his own. Or we would set up outdoor easels on the shore of the Long Island Sound, drawing sailboats and boulders and ducks. I filled sketch-pads with studies of horses and cowboys and houses with chimneys and windows and doors.
  Those doors stayed shut. The windows gave on nothing and the chimneys had no smoke. At a given moment—some years after my disquisition on ART—I recognized I had no gift for it, at least in the visual mode. My painted river resembled blue pavement, my pine tree looked more like an oak. My portraits were inadvertent caricatures, and the faces—male or female, young or elderly—all conjured the same face. It took me longer than it should have to understand that what powered my book were not the paintings reproduced but the language I used to describe them; here lay my true interest as well as, possibly, my gift.
  For better or for worse, it’s this perception which has stayed with me through the ensuing years. Each morning when I sit to write I feel that ancient hunter’s reverent elation when he drew an image on the rock-wall of a cave. “Perhaps the caveman threw stones at his masterpiece.” Then he might emerge to track actual quarry and, every once in a great while, succeed.