Monday, July 11, 2005


This week's New Yorker has two very good pieces of art criticism. The first, and probably the more valuable, is Calvin Tomkins's write-up of the Met's new Madonna, attributed to the early Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tomkins writes:

Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melancholy tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beginning of what we think of as Western art; elements of the Byzantine style still linger—in the gold background, the Virgin’s boneless and elongated fingers, and the child’s unchildlike features—but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two figures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture’s use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.
From here we get an account of the painting's not-always-certain provenance and how it came into the Met's hands. Tomkins gets additional kudos for giving a fairly dull and pro forma set of meetings and transactions a little of the dramatic urgency of a good spy movie.

The second of the two articles is perhaps more notable, however, if only for its vocabulary. I'm a pretty well-read guy and something of an armchair etymologist to boot, so I was impressed to see not one but four words in Peter Schjeldahl's "Two Views: CĂ©zanne vs. Pissarro" that sent me to the OED.

The four stumpers are as follows, listed with their definitions. (Note: Don't try following any of the links here -- they're just dead-ends.)

I. scintillant, a.


1737 M. GREEN Spleen 219 Who can view the pointed rays, That from black eyes scintillant blaze? 1790 R. KERR tr. Lavoisier's Elem. Chem. 497 Red scintilant zeolite from Edelfors. 1806 W. TURTON tr. Linn. Syst. Nat. VII. Expl. Terms, Scintillant, emitting sparks of fire when burnt. 1864 G. M. MUSGRAVE Ten Days in Fr. Parsonage II. ii. 53 Cloth of gold,, and other scintillant adornments. 1890 CLARK RUSSELL Shipmate Louise III. xli. 289 By this time the island had melted into the scintillant dusk of the sky.

b. Her. Emitting sparks.

1610 J. GUILLIM Heraldry III. iv. (1611) 95 He beareth seven Firebrands flammant and Scintillant proper. 1868 CUSSANS Handbk. Her. viii. (1893) 130.

c. fig.

1794 MRS. PIOZZI Brit. Synon. I. 400 Hudibras too, of all books perhaps most dazzling with scintillant brightness. 1828 D'ISRAELI Chas. I, viii. I. 249 His scintillant wit. 1880 RUSKIN Notes on Prout & Hunt 9 Genius..scintillant enough to be made more vivid by contraction.

II. echt, a.

Authentic, genuine, typical. Also as adv.

1916 G. B. SHAW in New Age 25 May, Many Englishmen who know Germany, and whose social opinions are echt Junker opinions, hail this war as a means of forcing England to adopt the Prussian system. 1917 E. POUND 19 Dec. in Lett. J. Joyce (1966) II. 414 The opening is echt Joice [sic]. 1934 C. LAMBERT Music Ho! iii. 173 England has never produced an artist so ‘echt-English’ as Mussorgsky is ‘echt-Russian’, or Renoir ‘echt-French’. 1950 D. GASCOYNE Vagrant 56 His endlessly varied echt-lyrical lute-ditties. 1956 Essays & Studies IX. 14 Those passages in his letters which are echt-Coleridge do not belong at all to letter-writing. 1962 N. FREELING Love in Amsterdam II. 70 ‘Are you married?’ he asked.., ‘I see your ring, but is that camouflage or echt?’

III. obstreperousness, n.

Originally: vociferousness, clamour, noisy behaviour. Now (chiefly): unruliness, aggressiveness, argumentativeness.

1655 T. FULLER Church-hist. Brit. VIII. i. §18 Things not being methodized with Scholasticall Formality, but managed with tumultuous Obstreperousnesse. 1657 T. REEVE God's Plea for Nineveh 37 This finding fault with God's actions, is called an obstreperousnesse against the Almighty. 1691 A. WOOD Athenæ Oxon. II. 450 A numerous crowd..seemed to be hugely taken and enamour'd with his obstreporousness and undecent cants. 1805 G. HUDDESFORD Les Champignons du Diable 106 Though of obstreperousness 'Nezzar Himself never gave better measure; Nor would have all his kinds of music Together half so soon made you sick. 1865 A. D. WHITNEY Gayworthys (1879) xxxiv. 330 Comporting herself with the utmost self assertion and obstreperousness. 1905 Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 10 831 A period of organic instability, obstreperousness, and even semi-criminality is normal for all healthy boys. 1991 Renaissance Stud. 5 386 It was necessary to invoke the provisions of the constitution against obstreperousness and speaking out of turn.

IV. nugatory, a.

1. Trifling, negligible; of no intrinsic value or importance; worthless.

1603 P. HOLLAND tr. Plutarch Morals 1156 That we may not range too farre, nor use any superfluous and nugatory words. a1690 S. JEAKE {Lambda}{omicron}{gamma}{iota}{sigma}{tau}{iota}{kappa}{eta} {Lambda}{omicron}{gamma}{iota}{alpha} (1696) 613 The Equation is either Nugatory or Impossible. 1692 R. BENTLEY Boyle Lect. III. 32 Too much addicted to this nugatory Art. 1786 T. JEFFERSON Let. 26 Jan. in J. P. Boyd Jefferson Papers (1954) ix. 226, I have been a nugatory interference, merely to prevent the affairs of the United States from standing still. 1791 W. MAXWELL in J. Boswell Life Johnson I. 343 [quoting Maxwell, 1770] Lord Lyttelton's Dialogues, he deemed a nugatory performance. 1841 I. D'ISRAELI Amenities Lit. (1867) 299 The diligence of the editor has not been wasted on trivial researches or nugatory commentaries. 1858 T. CARLYLE Hist. Friedrich II of Prussia II. VIII. i. 295 These confused Prussian History-Books, opulent in nugatory pedantisms and learned marine-stores. 1879 W. THOMSON & P. G. TAIT Treat. Nat. Philos. I. I. §81 The construction fails..and the theorem becomes nugatory. 1948 E. WAUGH Loved One 57 Mr. Joyboy was not a handsome man... But these physical defects were nugatory when set against his moral earnestness and the compelling charm of his softly resonant voice. 1960 E. H. GOMBRICH Art & Illusion x. 355 To him who never drew from life, the study of ‘plein-air’ effects must have seemed nugatory. 2001 J. FRANZEN Corrections 370, I tried to explain to him that my white-blood-cell needs are entirely nugatory.

2. Invalid; inoperative; useless, futile, unavailing.

1605 BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Gg3, Which assignation..may seeme to be Nugatorie and voide. 1648 W. PRYNNE Plea for Lords 27 Which Act will be..void and nugatory. 1772 Junius Lett. (1788) Pref. 19 As the fact is usually admitted,..the office of the petty jury is nugatory. 1786 S. HENLEY tr. W. Beckford Vathek 15 His reiterated attempts were all of them nugatory. 1838 W. H. PRESCOTT Hist. Reign Ferdinand & Isabella (1846) II. xvii. 128 Those provisions of the edict..were contrived so artfully as to be nearly nugatory. 1878 W. E. H. LECKY Hist. Eng. 18th Cent. I. ii. 306 The law..was evaded and made almost nugatory. 1910 Encycl. Brit. I. 231/2 Margarine manufacturers..have found an easy way of rendering the regulations quite nugatory: they add methyl-orange. 1991 P. JOHNSON Hist. Mod. World 406 Even if built and fired, its conventional payload would have rendered it nugatory.

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