Transcending Space and Time

Final Installment of the Vernon Mona Lisa

“Paintings have the power to transcend space, time, and state of mind.”

In my final installment of the Vernon Mona Lisa, I want to write about the stories and anecdotes that touched me the most starting with her arrival in Newport, RI. Told verbally or in writing, these tales engaged my imagination to see scenes, sometimes in detail, that have fortified a personal belief - that art can not only transform a space, but can also calm the mind, settle the soul, inspire hope, and strengthen faith.

When William Henry Vernon arrived back in Newport after a nineteen-year hiatus in France, he opened a small museum to display his collection of master paintings. That is, all but one. The Nun, as he called it, hung in his bedroom and it is believed that he knelt before her every night to pray. I picture him in his full nightgown, face and folded hands illuminated by candlelight, eyes on Mona Lisa, mouth forming silent whispers of desires and regrets.

After William Henry Jr.’s passing, the painting was handed down from generation to generation. It hung in many of my ancestors’ homes including Ambrose White Vernon, Doctor of Biology at Dartmouth University, who began the investigations as to who painted her and when. This bit of history reminds me of the scene when Johannes Vermeer is mixing paints in the movie The Girl with The Pearl Earring. Haven’t seen it? If you love art, it’s a must see. Anyway….

Maloney was the head restorer and cleaner of paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Through chemical examinations he found the paint of the Vernon Mona Lisa to be identical to the paint mixes of da Vinci including ground lapis lazuli that Leonardo purchased from a monastery. He used it to make his blues, azures, and purples and never offered it to his students. I picture da Vinci making his trips to the monastery to purchase the coveted lapis and then, once back in his studio, grinding it by mortar and pestle. Then, adding binder and wha-la! Incredibly rich color to apply to his canvases.

One anecdote that touched my heart was not as a painter but as a dancer. I found it in a newspaper called The Journal from Chatham, NJ featuring Kassie Partlon, my first cousin once removed. It read: “In the 1930’s Kassie Partlon would return late at night on the Erie-Lackawana railroad weary from rehearsing in Martha Graham’s Dance Company in NYC. Sleep would come slowly, but “in the morning when the sun warmed the room, before I opened my eyes, I could feel Lisa watching me as I slept. She was on the wall over my head, and all I had to do was look into the mirror on my dresser and see her smile at me.” I love that image. It’s so magical. Kassie was my first dance teacher. Many years later, I would ride that same train to NYC to study dance at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

I believe that, when we are old enough, we are the sum total of our stories, not just our own personal tapestry, but the ones in the treasure trove of our immediate family, ancestors, and friends. The stories we grew up with influence the way we interpret and experience the world. These stories help us travel back in time. We imagine places we’ve never been, people we never met, and conversations we were not privy to. I have had an extraordinary experience on this historical and ancestral journey.

Thank you for going on this adventure with me.