The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show on Van Gogh’s paintings of cypresses was, for me, a huge success because it made me feel insane. The show takes you through his early efforts to draw the beguiling trees and catalogs his obsession with them in his letters to his brother.
We see them in the backgrounds of happier works like shadows, but they’re something he’s putting off. They’re out of focus. Then it’s failure after failure. We’re taken through his falling out with Gauguin, and his commitment to the hospital in Arles—at which point we’re as eager to see them depicted as he is. When he finally pulls it off, it’s elating, but by then, you’re so down his rabbit hole that his whorls might as well have been painted around your head.
A new show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “A Very Strong Likeness of Her,” benefits from a similarly singular focus. Its subject is just one painting: Miss Frances Lee by Francis Cotes (1769), with the rest of the exhibit dedicated to ephemera and literature unpacking its significance.
The portrait of the 11-year-old was commissioned by her uncle Joseph—her closest family while she attended boarding school in England—for the benefit of her father Robert in Jamaica. Portraits were, of course, the selfies of the era, and Cotes was an in-demand member of the Royal Academy, having been commissioned by Queen Charlotte to paint her infant daughter Charlotte, the Princess Royal, two years prior in 1767. He died at 44, a year after completing his portrait of Fanny Lee, “after drinking a potion that he had