Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The brilliant young Mathematician Evariste Galois was killed in a duel when he was only 20. His biographer, E.T. Bell, described the last night of Galois' life this way:
All night long he had spent the fleeting hours feverishly dashing off his scientific last will and testament, writing against time to glean a few of the great things in his teeming mind before the death he saw could overtake him. Time after time he broke off to scribble in the margin "I have not time; I have not time," and passed on to the next frantically scrawled outline. What he wrote in those last desperate hours before the dawn will keep generations of mathematicians busy for hundreds of years.
Later biographers believe Bell's account to be a little overheated; for example, Galois did not invent his famous theorem that very night, he had been working on it for some time. Still, it is clear that when faced with almost certain death the next morning, Galois' defense was to keep doing what he did best, and to do as much of it as possible before his time ran out. His parting words were:
There are a few things left to be completed in this proof. I have not the time....I hope some men will find it profitable to sort out this mess. I embrace you with effusion.
Which brings us to Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931). As a child growing up in Missouri, all Sterrett wanted to do was draw. There weren't many opportunities for artists in Missouri back then, but as a young teenager Sterrett audaciously entered the Kansas State Fair art competition and won three first prizes. Encouraged, Sterrett went to Chicago at age 15 to attend high school and study art. The Art Institute was so impressed with her that it gave her a full scholarship.

When Sterrett reached 19, two things happened: first, she received a commission to illustrate her very first book (Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Segur). Second, she came down with tuberculosis which soon began to sap her strength. The race was on.

For the rest of her short life, Sterrett worked as hard as her failing strength would allow, illustrating Tanglewood Tales, the Arabian Nights and Myths and Legends.

By the time she turned 22, she had to enter a sanatorium where she could only work for short periods of time before resting. Yet, Sterrett's exhaustion doesn't show up in her pictures. You don't see her taking shortcuts or compromising the quality of her work. She seemed intent on making her pictures as perfect as she could, to isolate them from the limitations and frustrations of her life.

She knew the game was fixed against her; she wouldn't have a lifetime to improve her skills or compile a major body of work, the way other artists did. Working under those restrictions it might have made more sense to give up or resort to drink, but still she persisted. Such time as she had, that time was going to be devoted to making pictures. She was almost done illustrating Myths and Legends when she died.

The local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an obituary that remarked upon the disparity between her life and the exotic world she drew:
Her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood....Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young girl's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

I view each of Sterrett's pictures, like I view Galois' journal, as a little pearl of resistance against the fact that life is unfair and death comes too soon. Not much of a consolation, you say? It seems to be all we've got, which is why it might make sense to pay attention to her achievement.


kev ferrara said...

That's a remarkable story, David and very nice Dulac/Nielson influenced work, especially for such a young artist.

But what peaks my curiosity at the moment is how you even know about her and her story.


Rob Howard said...

Precisely, Kev. A dead ringer for Kai Neilsen.

António Araújo said...

In my college library we had, in the history of maths section, a facsimile of Galois infamous letter to posterity. Along with the hurried description of his ideas on what we now call group theory there are those notes you mention (he reminds me of Marlowe's Faust, begging for another minute as midnight comes and with it his demise), a few doodles (no, nothing worthy of your blog :)) and a phrase the main idea of which always followed me like a dark cloud, but whose exact text I had to look up after all these years:

"Je meurs victime d'une
infâme coquette (...). C'est
dans un misérable cancan que s'éteint ma vie"

Oh, what deadly, beautiful creatures young women can be :)

David Apatoff said...

Kev-- Hah! I'll let you in on a little secret about the careful, methodical process behind this blog.

I write about some artist or notion that I want to share (in this case, the myth of Europa and the Bull) and in picking out a couple of illustrations I come across an image I think is cool so I say "gee, I wonder who did that?" The next thing I know, I've put aside what I wrote and I'm following the story behind the image. I have over a year's worth of posts that I've put in inventory because I'm such a sucker for a pretty picture. (The trick is going to be finding a job that will someday leave me with enough time to finish them up!)

Joss said...

It's a relief to know you have storage for those times when the kids can't stop fighting and require redirection. I'll stop worrying that you'll throw your hands up in exasperation as it explains some of your generosity of spirit... just sharing your love affairs with pictures.

I'm Glad Kev asked. Artists and their varied stories about how or why they create never gets dull. Your secret machinations in the process of this blog is a delightful tidbit.

Oscar Grillo said...

Jeez!!!...She's AMAZING!!!

robobop said...

Wow she is great!

I must agree with the others - I love hearing the story behind the pictures, what the artist was up to etc etc and the you sharing them with us is a highlight of this blog for me.

Rob Howard said...

>>>I say "gee, I wonder who did that?" The next thing I know, I've put aside what I wrote and I'm following the story behind the image.<<<

According to recent studies into the psychology of human motivations, that sort of hunting behavior is hard-wired into many of us (undoubtedly, only the purest and noblest among us ;-)) What the scientists have found is a sudden uptick in that seeking behavior (and whetting of that desire) because of the Web.

Evidently the Web and Google searches feed a natural need in some people (again, only the greatest exemplars of humanity).

David Apatoff said...

Kev and Rob-- I certainly agree about the Nielsen influence, (although it's interesting that Nielsen's work was brand new in the US around the time that Sterrett graduated from art school). I don't think of her so much for her originality as for being one small girl from nowhere who bravely used art to reclaim whatever she could from death.

Antonio, I've never seen a facsimilie of that letter, but I know that Hermann Weyl(described in wikipedia as "one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century") said that the letter, "if judged by the novelty and profundity of ideas it contains, is perhaps the most substantial piece of writing in the whole literature of mankind." Perhaps he was referring to Galois' view of young women?

Joss, you are kind to even think about such things. Many of those drafts were thwarted because I couldn't recall where the heck I put some perfect picture that I wanted to use. Some were put aside because blogger (or my wife) wouldn't like it if I said such things in public. But most were stashed away because, like Galois (and everyone else) "I have not time; I have not time." One of these days....

Oscar Grillo and (other) Rob-- I agree that she is amazing, if not for her artistic output then for her response to her predicament.

Hellström said...

Wow, you just keep doing it time and time again. Wonderful stuff.

And good to hear that there's more piled up, I've been afraid you'd just stop. The gene Rob talks about must be switched to on in my set up (hey, nobel and pure moi!). Thanks again David, for feeding that apetite (and "re-wetting" it too) every single time.

So, Kai Nielsen you say...Dulac...

Anonymous said...

Love the imagery - I've always wondered what it would be like to know you're dying in 24 hours. What kind of work - if any- would I choose to do, to leave some sort of legacy or rail against my sinking into the gloom of the unknown, unacknowledged.

I suppose the question is: why don't more of us live by that principle?
Imagine the work we would have at the end of a prolific and somewhat desperate life!

And the grammar nazi in me has to point out the contextual correctness of these:
peak = pique
wet = whet

António Araújo said...

David, I was trying to recall what I saw, and I think my memory is mixing up several of his letters (for instance, my memory of that lamentation of his was much shorter, something to the effect of "pour une miserable coquette!" lost in a jumble of a page, complete with drawings of a rather childish type).

Thinking about it, I do not suppose the doodles I saw were in the same letter where he explained his ideas. I am not sure. Memory is such an unreliable thing. The letter was one document among many in a tome dedicated to the sources on Galois. I remember his introduction to his work (of course his work was not thought out in that desperate night, he had tried to submit it for a long while to several important examiners), it was the most scathing thing I have seen in the history of mathematics, it says a lot about the character of this uncompromising rebellious youth (at least some of his troubles stemmed from his own lack of judgement, one must remember that brilliant or not, he was in that age where hormones do most of the talking...).

ps: Well, I went out and found a rather interesting document on this matter

(complete with a de-bunking of Bell's version, but I thought everybody who cared about the subject knew most of this already, the sources the author cites were indeed all available in that volume I saw)

António Araújo said...

Oops, that link is behind Jstore. Here is a free version of the paper for those of you outside the gate walls:

António Araújo said...

By the way, it's worth reading, if nothing else, for the gruesome details of the "duel", near the end. That part I had never heard about. If it is indeed the true version, it is stupid, futile and tragic beyond all measure.

Rob Howard said...

>>>I suppose the question is: why don't more of us live by that principle?<<<

My paternal grandmother was raised as a Shaker (she left for "the world" when she was 21) and carried with her many wonderful attitudes toward hard work as a form of spiritual expression. One of those attitudes was to work with the same patience as if you had a thousand years to live and with the same energy and drive as if you were going to die tomorrow.

From that extremely practical way of thinking (and never thinking in terms of adornment and decoration) came some of the most beautiful architecture and design that goes to the very fundamental nature of visual beauty.

I feel that Sterret's work is informed by that practical sense of needing to fulfill a function. What is apparent is that she has pushed whatever ego she had out of the way to allow the viewer to get right into the picture.

It says..."look at what's in this picture" rather than, "hey look at what I did." I find that admirable.

Kev Ferrara said...

"Peaks" was intentional, and is a perfectly fine metaphor for the sentiment I was trying to express. "Pique" has negative connotation and is shopworn in it's two standard settings. ("Fit of pique" being the other.)

Conventional phrases do not equal "correct" language. They equal cliché.

scruffy said...

Fortunately this is not all we have but i love the way she chose to spend the time she was given. What an inspiration.

Alan Lawrence said...

The maths whiz, realising that the other guy in the duel can shoot better, fence better than he can... decides to put the sum total of his knowledge into one master work before he's shot, stabbed... whatever, to death.

Personally, I've never had a problem with being called a snivelling coward by death or glory clowns. Better a live coward than a dead hero I always say.

I had one brave, patriotic friend who was killed by a booby trap bomb in Vietnam and another who came back from the same war shaking like a leaf with a permanent wild look in his eyes.

All lethal conflicts, are mind numbingly stupid and totally pointless...

and the worst thing is... when all the heroes are packed up in their neat, hygienic body bags, some blogger will write them up as a minor foot note in a long history of brave stupid boys. Do you think the whiz kids parents saw him as an interesting foot note?

As to the gifted girl with but a short time to live. Nature can be as lethal as a gun or a sword... The evil, sadistic bitch.

Keep trucking on, keep your fingers crossed and enjoy your life... Every precious second of it. Because that is all we have.

Unless you believe all that religious stuff about an after life... I’m sorta sceptical to say the least.

However, I do remember my evil uncle on his death bed. His hideous, platitudinous priest urged him to,

“Renounce the devil and all who serve him.”

My evil uncle gave the priest a cautious wave of his hand and replied with a feeble, but resolute voice,

“This is no time to start making enemies father.”

Rob Howard said...

>>>I certainly agree about the Nielsen influence, (although it's interesting that Nielsen's work was brand new in the US around the time that Sterrett graduated from art school).<<<

I find nothing wrong with it. We place too much emphasis on novelty (parading under the rubric of originality). The first book I illustrated was a monster, an English textbook with 118 paintings. It was neatly divided into sections that could be handled in different styles. One chapter was on the origin of naming days...mostly after Norse gods. I felt it was appropriate to purloin Neilsen's style for this section ad it was one of the more successful parts of the book.

It's a delightful approach to use and gives rise to those decorative impulses the commercial illustrator has to keep under wraps.

norm said...

The value of "originality" is probably something we've all debated...and, at least for myself, I've been all over the place on the subject.
I've blown off people as just "ripping off" other artists...and I've done jobs myself that were "influenced" by other artist's styles.
So, I'm a hypocrite.
Even the best artists have influences...but on the other hand, when you just ape another artists style you are letting them do a good bit of the heavy lifting in figuring out the tough stylistic choices.
There are times I see a style that is so cool and solves problems I've wanted to solve...and I want to try it out.
Hopefully I incorporate the bits and pieces from other styles into something that is pretty much my own.
I think that's what this girl missed out on by dying too soon. I wonder if she had more time, if she'd have started to take the things she learned from Nielson and develop a more individual style.

Antonio said...

"but on the other hand, when you just ape another artists style you are letting them do a good bit of the heavy lifting in figuring out the tough stylistic choices."

I realize this is different in art (though I think it is probably an unfortunate sociological accident) but in mathematics, when facing a problem, one uses all the techiniques (you could call them styles) of all the mathematicians that came before us. Only if we find those tools innapropriate for the job do we try to be "original". Sometimes, even, we find a really personal solution but decide to go the conventional route when publishing the paper, since it will be more easily understood that way, and one is aiming for clarity.

The important thing is solving the problem properly, not in showing how original you are. You are original when you have to be in order to solve the problem, not just to show off. It is the problem that should be original, not you. I think Newton put it very well: Like him, we should climb on the shoulders of giants in order to see further.

I don't know, but I think something is lost in the current obsession with being new. When art is seen as a craft, a competent artist may take pleasure in being a good craftsman, in solving problems, in creating beautiful things. If he also breaks new ground, that is a plus, but he knows that is reserved for a few (it must be, by its very nature) and not being one of those few does not mean a failed life.

But if artistic worth comes only from breaking new ground, then it becomes a competition for priority - like being the first to climb the Everest. Hell, come to think of it, even that is a bit silly. Why is it that climbing the Everest loses all value once it has been done by someone else? Ok, somebody climbed it before me, but when I do it it is still the first time...I've done it!

Frankly, I am in the business of discovery (in maths) and I accept it as such, but I see all the running around as a cross I must bear. The part that keeps me in it is not the running for priority, but the knowledge that I get from it, the knowledge that for the most part comes from learning what other people did, not from trying to be original. Now, in art the silly part of the business is taken even further: in mathematics, you can use all tools (or styles) of the past, as long as you solve the problem. But in art, there is this silly requirement that even the style must be original. That really sounds like some perverted little ego game where art itself is the least important thing.

David Apatoff said...

Anonio said: "I think Newton put it very well: Like him, we should climb on the shoulders of giants in order to see further."

I prefer the rejoinder to Newton: "If I have not seen as far as other men, it is because giants have stood on my shoulders."

Antonio, it seems to me that the difference between discovery in art and math is that once something has been discovered in math, it stays discovered. It is a solid platform that you can build on. That's why "progress" exists in math and science. In art, on the other hand, you can make the same discovery a hundred different times and it never really stays discovered. Too many variables. (Didn't Galois have some theorem about it being impossible to solve equations with too many variables?)

kev ferrara said...

Antonio, I think you are neglecting the fact that art, being a form of storytelling, can't help but demonstrate personality and experience in life. Experience gives authority, and personality gives entertainment value.

If an artist tells an oft told story in a generic way, why listen to him? Life's too short.

This is why the work of the great artists and storytellers necessarily has identifiable personality, and communicates original experience, or common experience in a personal/original way.

Once the experience is communicated, it is the glow of personality that draws us back again and again, to live in the world of that artist's imagination.

norm said...

I was going to try to answer Antonio...but, Kev and David said it as well as I could , if not better.

norm said...


Antonio said...

>In art, on the other hand, you can >make the same discovery a hundred >different times and it never really >stays discovered.

David, maybe I am not getting your point, but aren't we agreeing, then? Just because a style has been used, why can't it be re-used one hundred times? Used a hundred different times in a hundred different ways - as a tool, not as something whose value was exhausted by being once discovered. Precisely because there still remains so many variables.

>Didn't Galois have some theorem >about it being impossible to solve >equations with too many variables?

Geek correction (cannot help it, job description): Something like that :). Actually it is just one variable but too many powers, and in just a certain sense of "solve", meaning: A polynomial equation in one variable, of degree greater or equal to 5 cannot (always) be factorized into radicals. That means you cannot get a closed formula like the one for polynomials of second degree that you learned in high school (the quadratic formula, remember that?). But you can solve the equations numerically, for instance. But of course, none of this disturbs the metaphoric use of the thing. :)

Antonio said...

>If an artist tells an oft told >story in a generic way, why listen >to him? Life's too short.

Well, to use the mathematics metaphor, what if I use a "style" of another mathematician to prove a new theorem? Meaning, I can use a "generic way" (meaning, a style invented by another illustrator) to tell a new story.

Of course something in the work itself has to be valid, otherwise yes, it would be boring. But validity can come from something other than originality of style. It depends on what you do with that borrowed style. But I would say that even if you use some borrowed style, you will infuse it with your own personality even if you try not to (of course the problem is if the user has no personality, but then the problem is not with the borrowing, but with the borrower). For instance, I've been learning scientific illustration, and although I and my classmates are mere begginers, I cannot fail to notice that even though in that field you try to be as unintrusive as possible in terms of style, you still cannot achieve a totally neutralization of the self (you wouldn't really want to in the end, but it's a nice game to play at the start). I can see perfectly well who did what illustration, even if it is "just" a stippling exercise, everybody is using a hunt 104 on polyester, with the same type of ink, and everybody is copying the same photographic reference. So I guess one can perfectly well copy a style of narrative illustration and still infuse it with something personal. It would be hard not to, with so many variables at play...

Anyway, just a thought, nothing I am religious about. I guess the end result may be profitable for the public, since they get a lot of novelty and people appreciate that. But it sure makes art into a neurotic field of desperados. I meet a lot fo college students from art school and I see them desperate to "find a personal style", when they should still be learning the basics. They don't master their craft, they don't understand color theory, they don't have good drawing habits. It is amazing how bad they are at drawing, if I take them somewhere to draw from life I see they cannot draw moving things, they cannot draw from memory or imagination, they do not know the properties of paints. I am a bloody amateur and I can draw circles around almost all of them. Yet they expect to be innovative. It's like building a skyscraper without foundations.

I must say I see some of that in science too. Kids running around, they just care about working in the latest field. I wonder why one wants to know anything about the latest field if one doesn't even understand what a good 19th century scientist knew. Of course it becomes clear if the search is ego-driven rather than curiosity-driven. They don't care about what they discover, they just care about being the ones that make the discovery.

I remember I was teaching projective geometry (in the abstract mathematical sense) to a begining phd student who needed it to work in a problem I had dealt with in my masters (so I got the job of showing him the ropes). I explained the basics, which he needed, but then I tried to show him how projective geometry was related to vision and art. He just asked me "do I need that part?". I was shocked into silence. No, he didn't need that part for anything, it was, you know, just "interesting". I thought learning interesting stuff was the whole point, but no, publishing papers is the point, being new is the point.

So the situation is not exclusive to art. But it is worst there, at least the science students still learn the basics.

Rob Howard said...

>>> I realize this is different in art (though I think it is probably an unfortunate sociological accident) but in mathematics, when facing a problem, one uses all the techiniques (you could call them styles) of all the mathematicians that came before us. <<<

(with no aplogies whatsoever, to Tom Lehrer)

Some of you may have had occasion to run into mathematicians and to wonder therefore how they got that way, and here, in partial explanation perhaps, is the story of the great Russian mathematician Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky.

Who made me the genius I am today,
The mathematician that others all quote,
Who's the professor that made me that way?
The greatest that ever got chalk on his coat.

One man deserves the credit,
One man deserves the blame,
And Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name.
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobach-

I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.
In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -
Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.

And ever since I meet this man
My life is not the same,
And Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name.
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobach-

I am never forget the day I am given first original paper
to write. It was on analytic and algebraic topology of
locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable
Riemannian manifold.
Bozhe moi!
This I know from nothing.
What-i'm going-to do.
But I think of great Lobachevsky and get idea - ahah!

I have a friend in Minsk,
Who has a friend in Pinsk,
Whose friend in Omsk
Has friend in Tomsk
With friend in Akmolinsk.
His friend in Alexandrovsk
Has friend in Petropavlovsk,
Whose friend somehow
Is solving now
The problem in Dnepropetrovsk.

And when his work is done -
Ha ha! - begins the fun.
From Dnepropetrovsk
To Petropavlovsk,
By way of Iliysk,
And Novorossiysk,
To Alexandrovsk to Akmolinsk
To Tomsk to Omsk
To Pinsk to Minsk
To me the news will run,
Yes, to me the news will run!

And then I write
By morning, night,
And afternoon,
And pretty soon
My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed,
When he finds out I publish first!

And who made me a big success
And brought me wealth and fame?
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name.
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobach -

I am never forget the day my first book is published.
Every chapter I stole from somewhere else.
Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory.
This book was sensational!
Pravda - well, Pravda - Pravda said: "Zhil-bil korol kogda-to, pree nyom blokha zhila"[1] It stinks.
But Izvestia! Izvestia said: "Ya idoo kuda sam czar idyot peshkom!"[2]
It stinks.
Metro-Goldwyn-Moskva buys movie rights for six million rubles,
Changing title to 'The Eternal Triangle',
With Ingrid Bergman playing part of hypotenuse.

And who deserves the credit?
And who deserves the blame?
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name.

Antonio said...

... or, as Leonard Cohen said :)

"Yes, many loved before us
I know that we are not new,
In city and in forest
They smiled like me and you"

I had this girlfriend who was jealous of my previous girlfriends. If I took her somewhere she would ask if I had been there with anybody else before. I finally had to tell her:

"If you do not want to do anything with me that I have done with someone else before...then you sure are gonna miss on a lot of fun activities!"

She got the point after that. :)

The craving for novelty can become obsessive. Everybody wants to be special. You got to learn to enjoy things for what they are, to make them special by doing them very well, not by doing them in new ways necessarily. So many people have made love, yet we all want to do it again, and again, and do it as pleasurably as the first people who did it, and as if it was the first time anybody decided to do such a thing. What, you need to come up with a new trick everytime, to be original every time, to write a new chapter in the Kama Sutra? :)

Art can be so many things. Yes, it can be inovative, and that may even be the best art, but God, I find myself craving for decorative sometimes, just because decorative can be repeated a hundred thousand times, and because the neurosis of the ego-driven artist who wants to be picasso at all costs just to feel special can be even less enlightened than the simple burgeois craving for beautiful well-crafted ornament.

You know, I really love the way kids deal with art. I can draw for kids all day long, and I feel honest. Draw me a poney, draw me an elephant. "Hey, it really looks like an elephant!" God, they know what they want! (usually what they want is to paint over it with their crayons, and that is fine too, every drawing is improved by a little crayon havoc):)

Vanderwolff said...

This is consistently one of the best thought-out, most educational (without lapsing into pedagoguery) art destinations on the web. Long may your banner of insight and excellence fly in the cybersphere, David!

Antonio said...

that Lehrer song is new to me. Great fun as usual :)

Of course, you are allowed to re-use methods in mathematics, but proving the same results in the same way of frowned upon. :) In that respect it s actually worse than in art: Painting a Vermeer in the style of Vermeer still would take some ability with a brush, but doing a Gauss in the style of Gauss just takes a xerox machine. :)

kev ferrara said...

Antonio, you seem to be agreeing with me now. I only take issue with your negative spin on newness. Novelty is only a curse word if it refers to meaningless innovation.

Also, I think there are several different kinds of "style." There is the surface style, in which the young artist copies an established artist's surface marks, without knowing why they were developed or used. There is the handwriting style, which is when an artist becomes so accustomed to his implements that they become second nature, highly sensitized to his every thought. And then there is style that arises out of an artist's concerns, his aesthetic, his philosophy of life, and his particular imagination.

A shallow artist can only duplicate the first type of style. A well-trained artist can probably duplicate the second type of style, as well as the first. The third type of style, however, I believe to be impossible to ape. One can copy the ideas an original mind has done before, but not the ideas he will do next. A true personality or talent can't be reduced to a formula because it is constantly bored and striving, and thus always changing the formula.

Antonio said...

Speaking of mathematician's cliches, I realize I've spent a friday night writing comments on a blog! :)

Anyway, of course I had to go and hunt for that Lehrer reference:

Don't miss it , it's just delicious. that guy was pure genius. :)

Antonio said...

in case I was unclear, I never ever meant to discourage innovation per se, only innovation as a form of socially compulsory (by opposition to individually compulsive) ego mania that insists on crushing everything else that is good and important in a field of knowledge or in one of the arts.

Maybe an illustrative example:

I met lots of art students who wanted to revolutionize the concept of color as we know it.

However, I never met an art student that bothered to learn the concept of color as we already know it! (and almost no teachers either)

(When I was trying to learn color I had to go read the papers of the textile, printing, and electronic industry engineers - you can't build a CRT on bullshit, you see, so I knew I could trust those. I cannot begin to tell you the crap about color that comes out of artist's mouths, even those who swear by Munsell but know nothing about how Munsell works, but use it as a sort of wallpaper catalogue)

That sort of thing makes the whole drive for novelty look less than sincere.

When I hear a researcher looking desperately for a new problem, I feel like asking him: "Why, have you solved all the old ones?"

I always thought of problems as nuisances you solve when you have to, on the way to knowledge. If there is something I want to know, hell I wish I could just read about it. While I can, I am really glad! Then, if I reach a place where nothing else is written, I reluctantly activate the old brain cells. That's what they are there for, to solve problems that get on our way, not to go looking for them on purpose. My mommy taught me that only scoundrels and ruffians go looking for problems. :)

It's like Karate. You learn it in case you need it, but it's in bad form to go around looking for an excuse to use it!

(You may have to take all of this with a grain of salt, I am allowing myself to linger on a pet peeve, it's almost saturday morning and there are no girls around so I am not at my best)

Zar Galstyan said...

This blog is quite the find, thanks for sharing!

Steve sculpts critters said...

I like the elegant feelings of rhythm and harmony she put in her work.

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard said: "that sort of hunting behavior is hard-wired into many of us (undoubtedly, only the purest and noblest among us)"

Rob, I sure like the sound of that more than "attention deficit disorder," which is the only other explanation.

Hellstrom-- thank you so much! Good to have you here.

Antonio Araujo-- thanks for the link to the Rothman essay on Galois, which was commendable. It's interesting how "unscientific" scientists can become when they are writing a biography of one of their own. I like Rothman's conclusion, "The fact that he could work through such a turbulent life is testimony to the extraordinary fertility of his imagination. There is no question that Galois was a great mathematician who developed one of the most original idea in the history of mathematics. The invention of legends does not make him any greater."

Anonymous and Rob Howard-- "why don't more of us live by that principle?"

If every artist believed they were going to die in 24 hours, there'd be a lot fewer of them painting in oils, that's for sure.

Apart from that, I suspect believing you will die in 24 hours has a great energizing (and perhaps even clarifying) effect but the intensity must be terribly difficult to sustain. Big achievements usually require the balance provided by reflection and rumination. (In the excellent Rothman article cited by Antonio Araujo, the author states: physicists and mathematicians all open conversations with the same question: "Did Galois really invent group theory the night before he was killed?" No, he didn't.)

Rob, I agree with you on the striking beauty of Shaker design. I'd never heard about the "thousand years" attitude, although I like it. I also enjoyed Merton's famous explanation,
"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."

David Apatoff said...

Alan Lawrence said: "Personally, I've never had a problem with being called a snivelling coward by death or glory clowns. Better a live coward than a dead hero I always say."

I don't know of any better treatment of that dilemma than the agony of Achilles in the Iliad, when he was told that if he turned around and left Troy before the battle he would live a long and happy life, but no one would mention his name on David Apatoff's blog 3,000 years later. He said, "Two fates bear me on to the day of my death. If I hold out here and I lay seige to Troy my journey back home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the Fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies... true, but the life that's left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly." Homer's treatment of that issue is beautiful. The ancient Greeks fully understood the problem all the way back then, but no one has found a definitive answer yet.

The issue is not just one for warriors. A lot of artists give up personal happiness in exchange for glory, or the possibility of glory.

David Apatoff said...

Antonio said, "A polynomial equation in one variable, of degree greater or equal to 5 cannot (always) be factorized into radicals. That means you cannot get a closed formula like the one for polynomials of second degree that you learned in high school (the quadratic formula, remember that?)."

Antonio, I have not been out of high school so long that I have forgotten the quadratic formula. But if there is an equivalent of the quadratic formula that works for polynomials to the third or fourth degree (before you get to Galois' cut off point of a variable of the fifth degree) I do not recall it. Am I missing something? Do I have a potential lawsuit against my old math professor Mr. Tenney for malpractice?

David Apatoff said...

Scruffy-- I'm glad you appreciate her work. I do think it deserves our respect and attention.

Vanderwolff-- Wow! you are welcome back here any old time.

Zar-- thanks very much. I enjoyed looking at your blog; the Pixar internship must've been great.

Rob Howard said...

>>>"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."<<<

I was ruminating about the use of faith while ruminating my morning toast. Although the idea of that sort of faith is terribly outré in a society where plumber's sons and daughters have attended backwater colleges and come away inculcated with the ideas and ideals of their teachers, I asked where was the harm? Indeed, from a practical point of view it appears that much of the world's greatest achievements have been done as a direct result of that sort of religious faith.

Whether it's delusional or not, the reality is that no one is (or rarely is) producing anything like the Sistine ceiling or the elegance of Shaker design and craftsmanship. As a motivation device that should appeal to today's self-help gurus, I'd think they'd place religious fervor near the top.

Occasionally a brilliant marketer like Guy Kawasaki realises that need and creates a quasi-religious movement with acolytes and apostles, as he wroite about doing with the Macintosh computer. i suspect that other skilled motivators and leaders could use those internal motives to their advantage.

Antonio said...

>But if there is an equivalent of the >quadratic formula that works for >polynomials to the third or fourth >degree (before you get to Galois' >cut off point of a variable of the >fifth degree) I do not recall it. Am >I missing something? Do I have a >potential lawsuit against my old >math professor Mr. Tenney for >malpractice?

Oh, you damned trigger-happy lawyers! :D

If you want to know why this is not usually taught in highschool, check out this page:

If you look at the general formula for the roots, you'll be thankful that Mr. Tenney was a reasonable man :).

(but if you check out the section on Cardano's method it's actually quite readable)

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Galois was killed in a duel, perhaps fought over an 'infâme coquette'(?), and Sterrett
from TB--both perished too young... very sad, tragic. They left their mark, by doing what they do best, which is what we can/should all aspire to~

To be able to illustrate for children and simultaniously win over the hearts and minds of adults is an exceptional, wondrous, accomplishment. Many of the illustrated books I bought for my daughter Lily when she was a child, I still have, and cherish... When writing this, I decided to pull out an example, and came up with "Great Days of a Country House" where John Goodall illustrates the great British country house with banquets, balls, gardens, and ladies dressed with imginative delicacy in those Victorian times...I don't know and don't care whether he is a well-known artist, for me he inspired the imagination, the mind, enabling the parent (me) to tell the story of a different time and place....

StimmeDesHerzens said...

re: Et tu, Leibesreime?

Stimmt! 1000 apologies. I noticed too late, and in this forum the commentator can not go back, regrets are too late!

Rob Howard said...

Antonio, I am in awe of mathmaticians. Indeed, I'm in awe of accountants, cash registers and even pocket calculators. To me, Arabic numbers are the most abstract things on earth...absolutely magical and impossible to memorize.

My lack of comprehension is so profound that I have been issued handicapped plates for my car.

Rob Howard said...

Leibesreime, that makes sense because children do not buy children's books. Adults buy them, with the (slightly) highest percentage bought by grandparents.

Antonio said...

I guess we mathematicians fear those numbers too, 'cause the fact is that most days I don't get to work with any numbers larger than, say, 2 or 5, the rest are just a lot of letters: mostly x, y, z, but sometimes so many that we have to steal from the greek alphabet too :). The worse is when we end up needing so many letters, that, yes, you guessed it, we start to number them! Alpha one, alpha two, that's the worst of both worlds ;)

Anonymous said...

Virginia Sterrett was my grandmothers aunt. I love to see that people are still in love with her art. I was lucky enough to inherit all of her original art work and the "doodle" pad that she used while she was in the sanitarium when she had tuberculosis. She was a very talented lady.

Rob Howard said...

Lucky you, Anon...

You're also lucky to have happened into this forum because, of all people, David can likely help you to have it see the larger audience it deserves.

Jesse Hamm said...

Funny that Galois was smart enough to figure out all that math, but not enough to figure a way out of a duel he knew he would lose. Seems true for so many smart folk: brains enough for their work but not enough for their lives.

Rob Howard said...

Jesse, you have to understand the times in which Galois lived were not nearly as intellectually elevated as those in which we lucky few live. Unlike we cognoscenti, they had silly beliefs in a poorly defined supernatural force they called God. Even sillier was the imposition of some unnatural behavior patterns they called "honor" (whatever that is).

In those unenlighted times, one's personal integrity actually compelled them to NOT run way from scary situations but, instead, face them. Had he not faced this deadly threat, his fellow troglodytes would have shunned him and called him a coward (an old-fashioned description of an enlightened position).

In this enlightened age of unelightened self-interest, no one calls anyone a coward but, rather, thinks of them as a prudent person who knows where their advantage lies (it's always good to consult ready legal counsel before undertaken any action that might be cowardly...err, I mean prudent.

Poor Galois lived in an age whose social mores surely contributed to his untimely death through what was no more than tribal coersion to unfounded beliefs. Fortunately for us, those moral dilemmas are nonexistent due to the application of Moral Relativism, which can magically redefine anything to mean anything you wish. Marvelous stuff, this constant redefinition.

Unlike those delusional minds in Galois' time, we intellectual giants have finally figured out where the very buttons and levers of the universe are. Through just a few changes in our behavior, we can control weather, tectonic shifts and trans fats.

Had poor Galois lived now, no one would have called him a wimp but, instead welcomed him as one of their own.

"Run Away"...from Monty Python's Holy Grail

Jesse Hamm said...

I wouldn't agree that the choice between honor and cowardice was limited to dueling or not dueling, and I doubt every contemporary of Galois' believed that, either. But even if they did, Galois was their superior in math; why not in ethics, too? Perhaps because genius is fickle....

Rob Howard said...

It's as if one uses a yardstick to measure water or air...wrong measurement. What was not only acceptable, but prudent behavior in Hellenic Greece looks deeply flawed when we use our relativism as our yardstick.

Who is right? I submit that today has yet to produce many minds like those who formed the very basis of Western civilization.

This is a good lesson for artists to understand...putting things in context makes for sophisticated and mature art. Also, drawing a world view from the few things taught in school and the narrow range of experience most of us have is hardly a firm basis to try to understand other cultures and make judgments based on a life surrounded with electricity, an iPhone and the Internet.

You are as subject to peer pressure today as was Galois and like hime, it is part of your fabric and hence, invisible. A century from now, people will guffaw at choices you thought were careful and well-founded. As intelligent as we deceive ourselves to being, we are the next generation's fools and warnings of what to avoid...and they'll be self-righteous and smug when they do it.

kev ferrara said...

I agree with you in principle, Rob.

However, I'm sure you understand, that it is necessity that makes for great men. In a society where one does not need to hunt for a meal, where one can hold a fire-creation machine in the hand, and where the warriors are hired hands, the brains and brawn of the general populace slackens to mush.

To long for honorable men schooled in hard-bitten reality is, in a way, to long for necessity... which is another way of saying, please give me war, famine, disaster, and chaos that honor may yet again come to the fore. Yet the entire point of civilization is to do away with necessity so that lives may be spent in leisurely contemplation, which now amounts to shopping from home.

The genius of our work-week oriented society is to turn men into machines by day, and consumers of the work of others by night. No time for contemplation of either honor or necessity, only an endless harvest season and open market... hands to work, hearts to Walmart.

BJ said...

Yes Rob, I was very lucky to stumble upon this forum. I am going to work on getting the art that I have, scanned so that I can share it..

norm said...

Not to completely disagree with you...but I'm not sure any particular time produces "many" great minds.
There will be a few exceptional people with most others working away like machines by day and entertaining themselves at night.
As for "now", I just finished reading astronaut Michael Collins' book "Carrying the Fire" today at lunch. So, my head is full of some of the breathtaking things humans have done in my lifetime.
Maybe that has me feeling a little overly optomistic about mankind and society.
I'll listen to the news on the way home though...and that should cure me.

norm said...

And to BJ,
It's very cool to have you check in here (I look forward to anything you have to show).
This is one of the amazing things about living here in the future. You can mention an illustrator from long ago...and in no time, you're hearing directly from a relative of hers.

Compared to just a few years ago, that's unbelievable.

BJ said...


It is unbelievable. When I first came into possession of the box of "stuff", I knew nothing about her. But found a book in the "stuff" with her name on it for being the Illustrator. When I researched her a few years ago, there were no blogs and just a few websites selling postcards of her illustrations. Technology has come along way. I just recently found out that my grandmother was named after her and that peaked my interest again...This is good stuff. :o) And I feel very lucky that she is a decendent of mine. I just wish I would have inherited some of her art ability. :o)

norm said...

I think a lot of artists (or just people in general) would hope that one day, one of their descendants would come across their "stuff", take an interest, and re-discover them, as you have.

David Apatoff said...

BJ, that's a very precious treasure that was bequeathed to you. I know you will honor it in accordance with the value of Elizabeth's efforts and legacy. If your box contains originals and scarce personal material I would strongly recommend that you contact Dan Zimmer at the excellent Illustration Magazine about the possibility of an article on Virginia. Illustration Magazine is the premier magazine of its kind, and could be an excellent forum for you.

Rob Howard said...

>>>...but I'm not sure any particular time produces "many" great minds. <<<

Well let's see...there was a period in the Mediterranean, centering around Athens, theat produced some of the longest lasting philosopical advances of mankind...when men went from believing that they were flotsam being tossed about by capricious gods to realising that they had much more control over their universe. That was a biggy and one of the prize pupils was not Alexander the Mediocre.

Concurrent with that was a golden age of Egypt which they have not recaptured. Oh yes, let's not forget the Romans and their influence on the way to comprt oneself that lasts to this day. Sure, Marcus Aurelius is not as widely read as any of Obama's autobiographies but it rings true to this day.

Did I mention the Renaissance in Italy, Spain and Germany? No small potatoes there. The Baroque era with Rubens, Bach and a few hundred other heavyweights was not an era to be sneezed at.

Just think of how enlightened people were in the Age Of Enlightenement.

There were a few other standout periods that produced an unusually high percentage of original thinkers. Sadly, most of the stuff in between was middling and lacklustre eras like now. Perfectly nice people lived in those grey ages. They loved, ate, slept and exhaled...but they didn't do much of note.They probably talked as much and were as serious and passionate about their itty bitty ideas as people in greater ages were about their big ideas.

I often wonder how many of them were bummed out at living through yet another era of ho-hum mediocrity.

I guess that they compensated as we do, by overinflating thier worth.

norm said...

I agree with everything you just said.
There were great thinkers in those times, but I'm saying (then as now) they were exceptional.
I'm not sure about the last couple decades, but I think that might be putting too fine a point on things and we may be too close to it to see it clearly just yet.
The 20th century had some incredible thinkers and some amazing achievements.

On the other hand...I might be too generous to recent times. I've asked friends to name the greatest current writer, painter, philosopher and scientist and we don't come up with any Shakespeare, Picasso, Socrates or Einstein.
But, two of those guys were from the 20th century and maybe the great minds are out there now, but the general public doesn't care or value them.

Sebastian said...

It's delightful to be seeing Virginia Sterret's illustrations being appreciated. I think it's fair to say her early work had been strongly influenced by the style of her day which was dominated by Dulac and Nielsen. But her illustrations for Arabian Nights shows a strength and maturity that was uniquely her own.

One note, "Myths & Legends" was never completed and we don't know of any illustrations from that to have ever been published in book form.

The complete illustrations of Virginia Frances Sterret with more biographical information may be found here.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks very much, Sebastian, for a great link. I enjoyed your blog, too.

Pop Art said...

nice story man. well narrated and depicted. gud

Massimo said...

Thanks for this post. I didn't knew her, her life and her works.

Anne N. said...

Thank you for this sharing.

David Apatoff said...

Pop Art, Massimo and Anne N.-- Thanks for your comments; I hope you'll come by again.

di said...

This is wonderful. I'm going to borrow these two people for a short story I'm doing, and I'll cite you for sure. Thank you so much for the wealth of information and the insight you bring to this website.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, di. I'd love to read your short story when it's finished.

Sadly, No! Research Labs said...

So wait. Galois was killed in a duel over Virginia Frances Sterrett?

The nerve of him. I've had a crush on Sterrett for years.

So it's a truel, then. Between, or rather among, Galois, me, and that other guy.

If you see either of them, definitely talk up the fact that we have comparatively awesome pistols here in the future. Just don't mention Kevlar vests -- I'm sort of counting on that being a surprise.