JULY 23, 2009

“I live on a bluff that is rapidly encroaching on my house,” she says. “I’m now 70 feet from the edge. I lost 35 this spring, about 20 in that February storm in June. I saw the dune being carried away. I saw a crack, it sheared off 15 feet during the night.”

It is this very dramatic test of nature that inspires the artist. 

“For years I have been painting the destruction of dunes and the power of nature,” she says. “I paint large works because nature’s very big…. Very dramatic. A lot of my work is about the power of the dunes. The falling-down nature of things appeals to me.




Anne Peretz knew she wanted to be an artist from the moment she set foot in Paris as a twelve-year-old, when her father, Henry Labouisse, was directing the Marshall Plan in France. “I was unbelievably excited by the prospect of living there,” she says. “The idea of becoming an artist in Paris captured my heart and soul. Right away I started taking my easel out to paint the bridges along the Seine.” Within a short time, Peretz was attending Saturday classes at the Academie de la Grande Caumiere, a well-known art school in the Fifth Arrondissement, and when she was fourteen she studied with Andrew Lhote, the noted painter and theoretician, who influenced a generation of French and expatriate artists. Since then, her dream of becoming an artist has become a reality, and in July of this year and in the summer of 2010 some of the work she has executed during the past dozen years will be exhibited at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Peretz is first and foremost a painter of landscape. Some of it has been inspired by her travel to the far-flung places—Morocco, Spain, Provence, Tuscany, Greece, Vietnam, Mexico, New Zealand, and Israel—but the preponderance of her oeuvre has been inspired by the sand dunes, freshwater ponds, and salt marshes of Outer Cape Cod, where she has spent much of her time for more than forty years. Her dune pictures—some as large as six by ten feet—dwarf the diminutive Peretz, a dark-haired, small-boned woman with a flashing smile, who looks ten years younger than her age. Peretz considers sand dunes as standing for the power and violence of nature. “Look closely at a dune and you’ll see that it is in motion,” she says. “Rivulets of sand, tufts of grass, and beach plum bushes are constantly shifting and tumbling down its side. A dune is always convulsing, retreating, losing ground to wind, rain, and sea. Dunes are about turmoil. They’re about layers behind layers and colors behind colors. They’re more than just sunny places to sit and look out across the ocean.”

Peretz has painted the dunes of Truro on single canvases, in triptych and polyptych form, and in all seasons and weather. For the most part, she employs Expressionist techniques, using layers of ochre, raw umber, and green mixed with sand to provide texture, and applying them with a palette knife to give the finished work a sculptural effect. Sunlight illuminates mountains of sand that tower above an unseen but elemental sea. The observer is forced to acknowledge the vast indifference of nature. Peretz is never sentimental but neither is she pessimistic. One senses somberness and isolation in her painting but never desolation because the work is always full o f drama. By transforming the harsh reality of landscape into abstraction, she enhances its power and produces an austere result that combines ascetism with athleticism. Although far too young to have been influenced by Lhote during the brief time she studied with him, her work reflects his famous dictum that atmospheric fluidity provides the way from realism to poetry. She arrives at this effect with careful deliberation, but without being overly self-conscious. “Sometimes I just put oil and turpentine on a brush, fling it at the canvas, and hope it lands in the right place,” she says, with a laugh. “If it doesn’t, I simply wipe it off with a rag and try again. I have a lot of fun that way.”

Peretz loves to swim in the ponds of the Wellfleet Woods, so it is not surprising that one of her favorite motifs is a headland at Horseleech Pond, which she has painted many times. Like her dune paintings, she has rendered the pond at various times of day and in different conditions—in the morning, at sunset, and during rain. Above all, the Horseleech series shows how Peretz’s work reflects and summons up mood—hers and that of the viewer—as well as the atmosphere that cloaks and is conjured up by the pond. As a result, her pond canvases have much in common with scenes of marshes bordering the Pamer River to which she has given a sculptural effect by spreading overlapping layers of paint with her palette knife.

In recent years, Peretz has become fascinated by old pilings that used to be seen along the harbor front of Provincetown, and has completed a number of paintings of them. “I love the geometry of pilings,” she explains. “How they jut out of the sand and mud at different angles, leaning this way and that in clumps and pairs. I find them full of melancholy. They’ve been abandoned by whatever piers and wharves they once supported, and all the years of bearing weight, being subjected to the ravages of storms, and undermined by the shifting of the bottom beneath them have taken their toll and changed the way they look.” Not surprisingly, Peretz’s paintings of the pilings present a bleak and disjointed existence at the edge of the sea, and, like her depictions of the dunes, evidence of the impermanence of all things created by man and nature.

Several large, square canvases represent a massive and steep-angled quarry in Tamariu, Spain, whose façade is illuminated by strong sunlight suggested by layers of white, brown, and orange ochre. Green bushes growing at the base, together with a fringe of trees at the top and a deep blue sky beyond, give the multiple planes and shapes of the quarry’s face a depth and power that force the viewer to acknowledge the sheer dynamic of the rock. While in Tamariu, Peretz also painted a series of large square canvases called Tamariu Woods, which Joseph Leo Koerner, Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, has described as masterpieces. These pictures (some measure sixty-six by sixty-six inches) depict the massive trunks and upper branches of trees growing up and sideways from the top of a cliff as they lean toward the Mediterranean Sea. Professor Koerner has written:

“Peretz manages to make us feel not simply that we behold trees on the coast of Spain, but that we stand there in our bodies, as well. She heightens this doubling by making her effigies almost life-sized. This invites us not merely to scan the trees with our eyes, but to reach out and touch them.”

Equally powerful and even larger are paintings that Peretz executed during a four-month stay in Israel in the late winter and spring of 2000. A landscape entitled Jerusalem to the East is infused with a searing light that almost obliterates the white stone dwellings of an Arab village sitting upon a hill in the background. Indeed, the painting is so ablaze with light that viewers might almost be inclined to shield their eyes. Other paintings depict a hardscrabble terrain strewn with boulders, punctuated by olive trees, and striated by terraced hills. Still others reveal the geometric clustering of buildings and rooftops in the Port of Jaffa. All of them are bathed in a harsh light that combines radiance with austerity.

“Before I went to Israel, I asked a painter friend who lives there what I should bring,” Peretz remembers. “He said to bring lots and lots of white paint, and when I thought I had enough to pack even more. Boy, was he right! The light there was merciless!”

In 2006, Peretz made a trip to Vietnam with her friend Arien Mack, a Professor of Psychology at the New School, who spends summers in Truro. Upon her return, she embarked upon a series of paintings of rice paddies, which present a foreboding quality that is unlike most of her other work. “Rice paddies are another form of the harsh landscape that has always intrigued me,” she says. “They also present geometry of squares and rectangles that I find fascinating. I use lots of brown and black when I paint them because I associate them with a very dark and sinister past.”

By way of explanation, Peretz described the life she led after joining her father in Paris. Her mother had died when Peretz was six, and, although she loved Paris, she hated he French private school she attended. “I was rebellious,” she recalls. “I began playing hooky and spending my days at a local shooting gallery where I collected stuffed rabbits and other animals.” When punished for her truancy, Peretz contrived to set her desk on fire and got the boot. At that point, her father decided she should go to school in the States.

The school Peretz was sent to was Miss Porter’s in Farmington, Connecticut. She then attended Smith College, where she studied painting with Mervin Jules and drawing and woodcut with Leonard Baskin. Meanwhile, she had met her first husband, Peter Farnsworth, a medical student at McGill University, whom she married at the age of twenty, before graduating from Smith. For a year, she lived in Montreal while her husband was doing his internship. Then, while he was completing a year of residency in New York City, she completed the requirements for her college degree at the New School, where she studied with Anthony Toney and Moses Soyer. Since the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps had paid for Farnsworth’s medical education, he was required to spend the next two years serving in air force. As a result,, he and Peretz, who had given birth to their son and daughter, were sent to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in 1962.

“I had already participated in two marches to protest our growing involvement in Vietnam,” Peretz remembers. “When I first arrived at Clark, I bought a subscription for I.F. Stone’s Weekly for the base library, which never got displayed. I also started writing letters to senators and congressmen. All I got back was “thanks for your interestand blah, blah, blah.” At that point Peretz started hanging out at the officer’s club swimming pool to find out what the fighter pilots, who were flying missions every day, were up to. At first, she couldn’t get much out of them, but then they started to open up, telling her they were strafing targets in North Vietnam and machine-gunning Vietnamese peasants as they worked in the rice paddies. “That’s why my rice-paddy paintings are so dark and harsh,” she says.

Shortly after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed by Congress, Peretz wrote a letter to the Manila Times voicing fierce opposition to an illegal war that had been based upon what everyone now knows to have been concocted information—that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. “I never expected to see my letter printed on the front page of the newspaper’s Sunday edition, let alone next to a photograph of a huge American soldier with a gun, who was towering over a tiny Vietnamese,” she remembers, “but that’s what happened.”

On the next day, the telephone rang and a colonel asked to speak to Captain Farnsworth. The colonel ordered him to order Peretz not to speak to anyone about her letter. Fifteen minutes later, the telephone rang again, and the colonel asked her husband if her father was, by any chance, a five-star general? When her husband replied in the negative, the colonel asked if her father was an ambassador.  As it happened, Peretz’s father was President Kennedy’s ambassador to Greece, and, as such, was considered to hold a high military rank.

Later that week, word came that the area commander, a four-star air force general, wanted to see Peretz. “I was thrilled,” she recalls. “It seemed as if my antiwar efforts might have hit the jackpot. I got all dressed up in my little Hong Kong silk suit, and was picked up by the colonel with a limousine and driver, and brought to the office of the commanding general, who was sitting behind the largest desk I’ve ever seen before or since. After the colonel and I sat down, the general started by telling me that a year earlier he’d had the honor of attending his son’s graduation from the Air Force Academy. He went on to say that he had been particularly moved by a recitation of the pledge of allegiance, which had been part of the ceremony. At that point the colonel handed him a piece of paper, and, reading from it, the general recited the pledge. When he finished, he looked long and hard at me. I looked back at him and remember shrugging as if to say, So?”

Peretz continued her story by saying that the general had then set out upon a new tack, telling her that he’d had the opportunity to witness the excitement and bravery of the young pilots who were engaging the enemy in Vietnam, and to see how proud they were to be representing their country. Peretz replied that she didn’t think anyone should be proud of fighting a war that was illegal and of little purpose. She could tell the general was getting agitated because by now his face had become flushed. A moment later, he started down another path, telling her he understood that the base hospital, where her husband worked as a pediatrician, wasn’t typical of the normal air force culture.

“He seemed to be suggesting that I might have been unwittingly influenced by dissident opinion there,” Peretz remembers. “he floundered about with that notion for a while, until I suddenly realized he was working himself up to ask me a question, and decided to help him out. I inquired whether he wanted to know if I was a member of the Communist Party. Then I told him, “No,” and that was the end of the interview.

Peretz and Farnsworth divorced soon after returning to the States, and two years later, she married Martin Peretz, who ran the social studies program at Harvard University, and later became the owner and editor in chief of the New Republic. (He is still the magazine’s editor in chief.) “Back in the sixties, Marty and I were involved in lots of political activity,” Peretz recalls. “We were supporters of John Lewis’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Students for a Democratic Society. In addition, I worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaignin 1968.”

The following year, Peretz’s life took a different turn. She had come from a family with a long tradition of public service. Her mother and father had met while working in a settlement house designed to help poor immigrant families in Manhattan, and her father’s work with the Marshall Plan and two United Nations agencies had influenced her greatly. By the time she was at Miss Porter’s School, he had married Eve Curie, Marie Curie’s daughter and biographer, and was living in Beirut and working for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency. During school vacations, she accompanied him on trips to refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan. “I remember spending Christmas in Gaza—a wretched place where everyone lived in tents—at a time when UN Peacekeepers were stationed there,” she says.

The turn in Peretz’s life took her to the Simmons School of Social Work in Boston, which she attended between 1969 and 1972, and from which she received her Master’s Degree in Social Work. She then started practicing as a therapist. The more she dealt with clients in low-income housing projects, however, the more she came to realize that counseling them had become too focused on the mother and was not sufficiently sensitive to family members and their surroundings. In 1982, together with a therapist named David Kantor, she founded a nonprofit family therapy and community outreach agency called the Family Center. It was designed to engage poor families by helping all members work together to identify bad habits, as well as their strengths, and by so doing encourage them to resolve destructive family problems, and raise their children in a healthy environment.

The Family Center has been a resounding success during the twenty-seven years it has been in operation. Today, it not only provides help to more than five hundred families each year, but also trains dozens of family workers touse its programs and models in other agencies. In recent years, Peretz has stopped going to the center every day, but as its founder and president she still works with staff to develop programs, such as the Parenting Journey, which helps parents examine their lives, decide what they like and don’t like about their own upbringing, and undertake to transform behavior they regard as repeating their own bad experiences. “In one program, we ask parents to bring with them an object that’s important to them,” she explains. “In this way, we try to persuade them to tell us their story. Many of these people come to us with feelings of deep shame and failure. We try to counter that right away by accentuating the positive. The philosophy behind the Family Center can be simply stated. It is to empower parents.”

Peretz and her second husband recently divorced after thirty years of marriage. These days, she takes the summer off from the Family Center to concentrate on her painting and tend to her duties as a grandmother—she has four grown children and seven grandchildren, all of whom take turns visiting her at her home in Truro so that she is rarely without the company of youngsters from June to September. She also has a wide circle of friends to whom she is extremely loyal. As a result, her forays into the political world are fewer than before, although she finds time to support media watch groups and voter registration organizations. Last October, she also found time to join a group organized by one of her sons, whose members traveled to Cleveland for a week to work telephones for the Obama campaign and go door-to-door to get out the vote. “I was assigned to drive a van,” she recalls. “I spent my days dropping people off at the polls, delivering chairs, water, apples, and other stuff. It was a wonderful experience. An incredibly loving atmosphere.”

In summing up the dimensions of Anne Peretz’s career, one salutes the artist whose uncompromising view of the world has produced work of undisputed quality, the social worker and innovator whose caring instincts have brought comfort and insight to thousands of troubled families, and the activist who has always refused to be deflected from her values.

An accomplished woman, indeed.

Paul Brodeur is a novelist and longtime contributor to the New Yorker, having uncovered dangers to the environment and human like such as asbestos and the hazards of microwaves.

ANNE PERETZ by anne peretz



In the last months of his life, my nonagenarian grandfather spent long days in a straight-backed armchair pushed up to the window, looking out to sea. He lived on a clifftop above the Mediterranean, and while he had always loved the luminous, ever-changing interplay of earth, sky and water, it became, in the end, his life. This was visceral, a pure need, more compelling to him than any human contact.

What matters, before and after language, before and after the hurly-burly of the everyday (and, profoundly, restoratively in its interstices as well) is a draw all but animal, a heliotropic turning to the light, a yen for the touch upon the eyes and skin of the physical world around us. It is a relief—perhaps even redemption—to accede to our nothingness, to relinquish our mind selves in favor of the unmediated, constantly fluid truth of nature, a truth truer than anything we can say about it—or indeed, than anything we can say at all. My grandfather, his gaze hourly, daily, upon the scudding clouds, the rise and retreat of the surf upon the rocks, had realized this. There is, after all, wisdom in the dying they have no pretenses left. As the poet Alan Shapiro writes, in his poem, Air,… 

all of the dying each one,

In turn, when the end was near, would look away from us,

Their faces drawn toward the windows, toward the light outside

More flower now than human, but still human, yearning

Not for people, though—they seemed all done with that—

And not for grace, or mercy, or for any otherworldly.


Health, but only this, the air outside, the opalescent

Flux of shade and sun dazzle there on the skin

As the body moves again and breathes in what is

Always opening out around it wherever it goes.


Nowhere is this “flux of shade and sun” more immediate, more overwhelming, than at the earth’s edge. There, most exposed, we are least encumbered, and can stand, however fleetingly, outside ourselves, in beauty. Each cloud in the infinite sky makes its mark, its particular, clear shadow across the ground, each stalk of grass draws its unique arc against the ever-changing horizon, and each whitecap along the steely sheet of the sea traces its own ineluctable path to the sand. Anne Peretz knows the force of this light, the elemental lure of the shore. And, being already wise in the full flower of life, she knows also how it matters.

Her dune paintings, both in subject and in execution, enact our primal human engagement with the grandeur and the isolate indifference of landscape. There are no people here, nor sign of people, but instead vast mountains of sand in constant flux at the wind’s hand, hummocks, declivities and precipitous drops fixed and punctuated by the resilient tufting of sea grasses, and scrubby shrubs, and sometimes, too, by the sliced water rising to meet the sand, while the textured sky—often white, and of so many graying whites, or even thunderous in its blackness, but also, again, of a thrilling lavender or cerulean blue—moves restlessly above. We stand, with the artist, simultaneously outside and within this roil of nature, exuberant and humble in our glorious irrelevance.

Her paintings of pilings engage in a different way with this relationship of ours to nature, in that particular luminal stretch, the coast. The pilings—leaning and entangled, or leaning and alone—convey in their dark yearning the melancholy of man’s half-forgotten hand upon nature’s line: we have intruded, and imposed, and, in insignificance, retreated. And yet even in the pilings’ twisted forms lingers the worth of our failed effort, an acknowledgement that the very effort itself, albeit doomed, is beauty. We are nothing against the might of the sea, but still, we try, and insist upon, our flawed human constructions. There is nobility in our condition.

And again, Peretz’s New Zealand canvases, with their ebullient palette of greens and golds (cat. Nos. 4, 11, 13) offer us this same encounter in a different mode. As if possessed of the power to walk on water, we live the drama of the verdant cliff-face and its ejaculating waterfall from the heart of the fjord itself. Momentarily freed from our mortal limitations, we are able not merely to be with nature, but to be—in an illusion for which one is already wishful, even as one enjoys it—of nature.

Above all, Anne Peretz’s paintings, in this exhibition, play with this illusion of immediacy: what she creates for us are evocations of being, of being there—in the wind, above the sea, the swept sand grains tingling at our cheeks, or at the water’s edge, a gelid toe in the murky, fronded water from which the pilings so mournfully reach; or out in the primal, lapping fjord, in the shadow of the great stone cliffs, our forearms moistened by the waterfall’s errant spray—experiences, like that of my grandfather at his window, for which there are no words. And yet, of course, these immediacies are perforce profoundly mediated: these canvasses are not mere reports of landscape, but greater truths elicited through the artifice of art.

Writing about Cezanne—a painter to whom Peretz makes allusion, her dunes a Mont Saint Victoire of America’s eastern seaboard—Pavel Machotka observed, “he makes us see the objects in his paintings as existing in a deep space behind the canvas, as in Renaissance painting, and at the same time on the canvas surface itself. The observer series in his or her own oscillation between these two ways of looking the tension between Cezanne’s two aims: fidelity to the motif and respect for the needs of the canvas.” Anne Peretz, too, is constantly negotiating the tension between the space behind the canvas and the space upon it, working and reworking the balance between realism’s demands and those of the painting itself. It is a negotiation which, thrillingly, proves to have more than one solution, each variant new in tenor and effect. Repeatedly, in these paintings, there is evident a movement from the more strictly realistic to more stylized or simplified renditions of the same, or similar, motif.

This is nowhere more clear than in the trio of New Zealand paintings, in which the earliest picture, that of the waterfall (cat. No. 4), captures the cliff-face from furthest away, a distance which allows context—the lilac sky above, the Nile-green fjord below—and so anchors the riveting convolutions of rock and foliage in a known frame. Here it is the waterfall’s bifurcated art that draws all elements together, reminding us, with its pause at the painting’s center, where our eyes, too, should tarry. The second painting (cat. No. 11) takes a tighter focus, retaining only vestiges of sky and water. The light, and hence the colors, too, have shifted, as if the cliff’s hues—greens, yes, but also the ochres and umbers of stone and earth—were seeping up into the ether and down into the lake, uniting the scene into one greater, undivided evocation, less strictly realistic, the painting nevertheless conveys with great intensity our awe before the cliff-face image, its extraordinary power.  By the third painting (cat. No. 13), the image, and we with it, have renounced all familiar external markers, to train our view instead, closely, upon the cliff-face itself, upon its crevasses and cuts, its bleeding stones and mosses. Bigger than the canvas itself, the cliff seems almost to be melting before us, a febrile fantasy; and suddenly visible within its natural contortions are unlikely forms and shadows. Here, finally, we find ourselves impressed—viscerally, hugely-by the rock’s mythic quality, by its sacredness. This is the painting which, while least immediately recognizable as representative, grants most powerfully the unmediated human experience of standing before this immense edifice, of our child-like self-surrender in the face of nature’s implacability.

The paintings of pilings, too, follow a similar trajectory from stakes set in the mottled shallows, stretching out towards the open sea, an abundance of embracing and dependent shapes—like people, themselves, in their loneliness and need—in paintings such as Pilings #1 (cat. No. 10), Pilings #4 (cat. No. 14) and Pilings #5 (cat. No. 12), to the stripped vision of paintings like Pilings #2 (cat. No. 16) or Pilings #3 (cat. No. 9), in which the looming dark pilings—a pair, in each instance—seem, each in its own configuration, to enact the agonies of the human predicament. Pilings #2 shows us two pilings conjoined, but somehow distorted, as if forming a single stunted, chopped tree. I find myself wondering what has been taken away, to leave them thus alone against the sky; the hoping, absurdly (these pilings are dead, after all) for growth and possibility beyond the edges of the canvas. But it is Pilings #3 in particular that haunts me, its two stalwart pillars aligned but unable to touch, a blot of color floating between them like language, as they stand bleak but somehow triumphant against the roll of fog, an infinity at once sublime—there, again, is the light and the air; and a sense, perhaps, of hidden possibility—and, in its indifference, utterly terrifying. This painting enacts what Beckett in his plays returns to us: the stark comedy, the splendid and agonizing absurdity, of our earthly existence: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Next to these images, the dunes more readily afford an access of joy: Even when the sky, itself leached of color, has faded the sand and water to but a memory of luxuriance (cat. No. 7), there remains the promise of change. The very site—the ever-shifting sands—contains that promise. And Peretz, with inspiring patience, revisits these rolling forms in all seasons, all weathers, just as my grandfather sat vigil at his window in all weathers: she knows the full breadth of the light’s effects, and in addition to the darker days, she brings us, like a gift,  in paintings such as Truro Dune #1 (cat. No. 5), Balston Dune #3 (cat. No. 15) and Truro Dune #10, the release and unalloyed pleasure of the sands’ imposing forms sunlit against a vivid sky.

Playing with the tension between realism and simplification, she modulates thereby the degree to which each of us can claim each image for ourselves: for this viewer, the more simplified the composition, the more intimate my response. Nabokov likened the experience of art (and in particular, of fiction; but the analogy serves aptly here) to climbing a mountain: the writer and the reader, he proposed (or the artist and viewer), ascend from opposite sides, to meet at the summit. With each painting, Anne Peretz recalibrates the scale and pathways of her artistic mountain—rather the way the wind and sea play upon the dunes, eroding extant trails and creating new possible paths from one day to the next. In setting for herself new challenges, she opens for us, too, new emotional possibilities, ways of seeing afresh what we thought was there, and of discovering, through her grave and frank attention not only to reality but to our visceral encounter with reality, the elemental power, beyond words, that the natural world holds over us.

If the pilings, in their slow deterioration in the sale water—long bereft, now of whatever jetty they may have anchored—recall to us the inevitable unraveling of man’s work upon the earth, then the dunes serve as a reminder that even the greatest natural monuments are ultimately in flux. Nothing is immune to change, no glory is permanent but that of change itself. There is nothing, really, to say about this fact; it remains, instead, to try to admit as profoundly as possible the splendor both of what is, and of its transformation. Anne Peretz’s paintings undertake that exploration, with rigor, with honesty, and with passion. Like Cezanne, she is not trying to say anything about the world, but rather, as truthfully and as fully as possible to see the world. Her current subjects—the sand, the sea, the sky, the stones, those forlorn man-made pilings—embody the alarming and exhilarating instability of that undertaking, and her renditions of these subjects both enact and evoke our encounters with an awe for which there are no words.

Claire Messud is a novelist whose books include The Last Life, The Emperor’s Children, and most recently The Woman Upstairs.




It is still startling to behold the non-allegorical figuration of a hill or a field. Such a picture has the grandeur of all human creations for which the human is small, and not the most pressing problem. If we may call ourselves large, it is because we may make ourselves little, and expunge our face from the face of the world. We are nagged by the beautiful suspicion that we stand in the way of our own clarity. But when we remove ourselves, we fulfill ourselves. When we contract, we expand. In this sense, the correction of subjectivity is not only possible for us, it is ordained of us. We are here to see what there is, to see what there is for what it is. We will never see it perfectly, of course. The division between the subject and the object is a primal rupture, and we will fail to heal it, or to surpass it completely, as surely as we will fail to heal, and to surpass completely, our own individuation.  But still we may move nearer and nearer to a view that is truer and truer. The partial failure of objectivity is a noble failure, and the partial success of objectivity is an affirmation of a calling. In painting, this calling is most completely honored in the landscape that is “about nothing”. This genre represents nothing less than the renunciation of the fantasy of union with the universe. Instead of a blissful integration, there is an effortful confrontation. Instead of a collapse of distance, there is an exploitation of distance for the ends of understanding. Such images of nature evacuate what we have found inside ourselves in favor of what we have found outside ourselves. The non-humanity of such pure pictures of place is a high expression of humanity: a stringency of civilization. Such painting is evidence that we have finally gotten out of our own way, that cognition has become a spiritual activity.

In the history of art, the “independent landscape” was a genuinely revolutionary achievement. The tradition was that human purposes were visited upon natural facts. The forests and the mountains and the rivers were interpreted as the instruments of myth, of religion, of morality, of emotion, of history, and lately of memory; they were nature’s seats of culture; they showed us mainly us. They were anything but themselves. They were symbolized out of reality. Even the conventions of the independent landscape eventually became impediments to the observation of landscape. Thus the emergence of the independent landscape—in which, according to Christopher S. Wood, “the beholding subject submits to the confusion, the mixed pleasure and fear, of non-purposive wandering_--was really an epic of secularization, in which painting learned to argue the side of the earth and to teach the lesson of nature’s otherness, its indifference to meaning. The emancipation of the landscape was accomplished very late in the history of painting, and it became one of modernity’s most significant proofs of the autonomy of aesthetic experience. But this optical and intellectual discipline is regularly imperiled by philosophic and political fervors, as in the contemporary “re-invention” of landscape in the interest of environmental homiletics. “Must we read that we may paint?” an influential eighteenth-century writer on landscape asked, and then mocked his own question. Trees are not texts. So the cleansing of vision is an endless labor. A way must be cleared through the mind for forms to make themselves known to the eye. The only way to advance is to begin again. Great preparations are required for fugitive moments of veracity.

Anne Peretz has a talent for such primary undoings. I meanit as praise when I say that she keeps beginning. Her growing strength as a painter is owed not least to her refusal to leave the rudiments behind. For this reason, there is no sophistry in Peretz’s brush. There is instead a classical and unglamorous determination to find painterly solutions for the problems to which perception gives rise. She does the work that is enjoined by a glance. She accepts the responsibilities of a point of regard. Peretz’s landscapes gladly exchange the myth of a place for its materiality, which amounts almost to a variety of asceticism if it is the hills around Jerusalem that one is beholding. For these are truly charged prospects. This topography is smothered in human notions, ancient and modern. Here vision is hounded by visions. Here the appearances need to be protected from the commentaries. (On a torrid afternoon many years ago, I stood with Yehuda Amichai on a road near the outskirts of Jerusalem and tried to hail a taxi. The poet stood there with his arm raised, but he was not heeded. Suddenly he turned to me and exclaimed: “This is the problem with Jerusalem: when you raise your arm to summon a taxi, you feel like a prophet!”) But Peretz sat in Lifta last year in the same spirit as her predecessors two centuries ago sat in the Campagna: secularly, patiently, reportorially, for the study of terrestrial truth. She found a way to wander non-purposively along a pilgrim’s trail. Peretz’s pictures provoke feelings, but they are not pictures of feelings. In her landscapes, the earth is not an emblem. Its beauty is a corollary of its integrity. Her canvasses are not designed to enchant, unless integrity is enchanting.

Not since Anne Ticho has an artist seized upon these slopes for aesthetic investigation, or lingered so profitably over the arduous pleasures of their ascensions. But Ticho mainly drew, and Peretz does not gather her information about the natural world by means of drawing. She proceeds from observation directly to oil, returning tones of paint for tones of perception, so as to master not only the look of a scene but also its solidity. In this way Peretz gives the feeling of a foundation—the geology beneath the impression, the rock that does not pass. The dust is in her palette. Her hills rise with an inexorability that is not merely sensual, the miscellany of patterns and details is unified by a king of physical conviction—by the earth’s conviction, which is the object of the painter’s conviction. Peretz’s extraordinary alertness shows in the ruggedness of her renderings, especially in their intelligent surrenders to impression. She never pretends to know more than she knows. (Her experiments with scale are also a consequence of her probity: in the larger canvasses there is nowhere to hide.) The absence of somany colors from these pictures—from On the Road to Jerusalem (cat. No. 8), from Ayalon Park (cat. Nos. 1,2,3)—is itself gorgeous. Peretz’s pictures around Jerusalem capture the collision of and aridities and fertilities that confers upon these surroundings their physical and metaphysical force. And her landscapes always honor the air, which strictly speaking is the landscape painter’s real subject. (This is finely accomplished in the euphonious pallor of Beach at Truro (cat. No 11), which is essentially an inquiry into atmosphere.) These pictures have no illusion about the world’s transparency, even in the radiance of the Levantine light.

Indeed, they leave the viewer gratefully disabused of the eschatology of radiance. For if ever we find ourselves, in a perfect light, we will gain only an experience of a perfect light. It, too, will be only an experience of seeing. This is the philosophical advantage of the painter, who expects nothing else. (On the subject of light, painters are greater authorities than mystics.) Peretz’s most intense explorations of radiance and form take place not in the mountains but by the sea. The success in Jerusalem is matched by the success in Jaffa. Her stark, modest, unpeopled roofscapes—these curves and corners in the pitiless sun—are admirable in their austerity. Their eloquence is the unrhetorical eloquence of geometry. In Peretz’s hands, the architectural improvisations of the city’s old quarter come to enjoy an almost mathematical necessity, a sharpness of definition that defies the port town’s historical and cultural blurrings. But these pictures are in no way idealizations. Quite the contrary. Peretz is exercised as much by the surfaces as by the shapes, and the facades that she paints are quiet narratives of visual incident, as the light falls and washes and stumbles and clings to the walls and the roofs. Where there is stucco, there is a story. The simplicity of these compositions is answered by their tactility. They are not tempted by abstraction; they prefer to remain loyal to the progress of light across matter, to the adventure of luminosity. It is only in darkness, Peretz seems to be saying, that reality is undifferentiated. When things are revealed, they are never all the same.

“A building in one of these pictures is a representative of the still and self-sufficient way that what is painted and pictures themselves both have their existence.” This remark nicely describes the attainment of Peretz’s roof pictures. It wasmade by Lawrence Gowing in hismagnificent essay about Thomas Jones, the Welsh painter of the eighteenth century whose small Italian roofscapes are one of large miracles of European painting. And more: “The Naples sketches achieved an enveloping unity by means quite opposite to dramatic illustration. They are gentle and precise and they illustrate nothing. They simply are.” In 1780, Jones leased an apartment in Naples on the top floor of a building opposite a salt warehouse, and busied himself in the customary way, by painting the bay and the distant, menacing majesty of Vesuvius. Then, in April 1782, he climbed up to the lastica, the terrace on the roof of his building, and started sketching the walls and the windows, around him in oil on paper, and discovered his genius for a gem-like rigor of representation. These precious sketches make empiricism seem like a reason for happiness. For the description of the world is one of the ways in which we defeat the disorder of the world verisimilitude in art is a stoic virtue. If Peretz is looking for ancestors, she can claim one in Jones. From her old Arab lastica on the Mediterranean, she strove for a similar feat of fidelity.

The development of a painter is a general encouragement, because it vouches for the ascendancy of consciousness over the dumb sublimity into which we have been cast. This is particularly the case when a painter of landscape comes into her powers. The earth may be the original cause of wonder, but it is good that wonder should give way to work, as ithas in Anne Peretz’s rich, diligent, unsentimental paintings. Her touch is now (in Gowing’s words, again) “the touch that not only describes but associates the material of paint with the liveliness of the world.”

Leon Wieseltier was literary editor of the New Republic from 1983–2014. He is currently the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution.




After her years of activism, Anne Peretz remains optimistic and committed to her basic values. She is a refreshing reminder of the possibility of combining an artist’s vision, creativity and imagination with an activist’s ideals, values and energy.

Anne Peretz understands life cycles and timing. A bred-in-the-bone activist and determined believer in public service, she is an accomplished artist whose work was presented this past summer at Provincetown’s School House Center in the Silas-Kenyon Gallery.

The recurring themes in Peretz’s life have been her interest in art and her dedication to public service. The satisfaction she derives from each has allowed her to balance a commitment to both, but this summer’s exhibition in Provincetown, and her exhibitions at Salander-O’Reilly in New York, have marked a shift in Peretz’s energy. Painting is now her priority.

In a recent conversation, Peretz reflected on her dual interests, “I grew up in a family devoted to public service,” says Peretz, “and I’ve always had a sense of that commitment. I suppose it’s a sense of pay-back—a moral value or commitment to do something worthwhile.”

The family tradition of public service is long and distinguished. Her father, Henry Richardson Labouisse, was an American diplomat and international public servant. He was the Director of the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), and, as the Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF: His life’s work, which was fighting against “the slow attrition that poverty and ignorance waged against hundreds of millions of children in the developing world,” was a strong influence on Peretz. Peretz painted one of her first landscapes at age 14 while she was living in Paris with her Father during his tenure as Director of the Marshall Plan.

After graduation in 1960 from Smith College, where she majored in art, studying with Mervin Jules and Leonard Baskin, she was drawn to public service. Although she maintained her interest in art and continued her painting, she has devoted the last 40 years to various causes and human service programs.

Her years of political activism began with fervent involvement in civic rights and anti-war activities in the ‘60s. She formalized her early years of social activism after she received her M.S.W. from the Simmons School of Social Work. As a young social worker, she realized that the onus of change was usually focused on one individual—the mother. “I felt there was a need to focus on the family as a unit, as well as the circumstances within which families try to function,” says Peretz. It is this sensitivity and insight that has defined Peretz’s interest in “big picture” policy analysis as well as the delivery of individualized service. She is unique in her ability to analyze situations from a policy perspective without compromising the needs of the individual. Her ability to do one has not detracted from the other.

While some artists might have found it impossible to work creatively in a bureaucratic environment, Peretz focused on her desire to have the bureaucracy function creatively. Remarkably, Peretz not only balanced her two interests, but each one positively influenced the other. She brought creativity and innovation, if not artistry, to social policy and human service, and she did so without diminishing or disregarding the need for organizational structures. She would have been loath to invoke the “I’m an artist. I can’t be bothered with bureaucracy” attitude.

She has the capacity to see basic public policy paradoxes, but avoids paralysis. She relied on her painting as an antidote to the despair that many of her professional peers experience in the extremely complex environment of multiple problem families and deprived communities. After working in chronically distressed and deprived neighborhoods, where many young social workers become discouraged, Peretz was hardened in her belief that most families can be helped to become stronger. Perhaps it is her perspective as an artist that convinces her there are many ways to see the same picture. Remarkably, she doesn’t see negativity. “I believe almost anything is possible,” she says without flinching. She does not focus on problems or limitations and, knowing there aren’t simple answers, explores comprehensive solutions despite the complexity of distressed, multi-problem situations.

She solidified her commitment to families in 1982 when she founded The Family Center, a nonprofit, family-focused human service and community outreach agency located in Somerville. It is founded on her belief that families need help building on their own natural strengths. “We believe that all families, whatever their stresses or problems, can be strong, resilient and creative,” says Peretz. “For the last 18 years, we’ve been trying to create an organic organization that realizes a family’s needs and accepts that those needs may be different things at different times.”

Despite all the difficult social problems Peretz has encountered in her profession, she remains optimistic. Of the Family Center she says, “we are asking, not answering, questions.” It is both her humility and her strength that convinces her to keep asking questions.

In the past two years, Peretz has gone through a process of separating from the Center while simultaneously devoting more time to painting. After holding various executive positions with the Center from 1982 to 1998, she has, as she says, “worked herself out of a job.”

She feels the Center is relatively self-sufficient and, for her, the measure of its success has been the feeling that she doesn’t need to be involved any longer. “Each separating step has been difficult,” she says, and admits experiencing a sense of loss. Nevertheless, in an act of ultimate symbolism, she has finally given up her office. As she has separated from the Center, she has realized this is the time for her painting. “I always knew at a certain point I would go back to painting,” she says.

In her public service life, Peretz has been a tigress in her determination to help families. However, she is remarkably understated about her own contributions and of her sense of self. While there are many who have done less but demanded more of the spotlight, she is remarkably free of ego, or any need to embellish her accomplishments, and is known for her ability to collaborate.

While her creativity, optimism and daring have defined both her art and her activism, Peretz says she never saw the connection between her art and her public service career. The obvious connection is her ability to see with great clarity and feel with exquisite sensitivity. In both her policy innovations and in her painting, she “thinks out of the box.” Peretz’s paintings have been described as full of strength and passion.

Peretz, who has been coming to the Cape every summer since 1965, paints Cape Cod landscapes of wooded ponds where she swims or dunescapes which surround her home in Truro, “Being in this environment and painting has a spiritual dimension for me,” she says, and uses the landscape “as inspiration, solitude, and identity.”

Michael Carroll, the Managing Director of the School House Center in Provincetown, describes the work in Peretz’s recent exhibition as “conveying experience and power. Her work is never naïve, selfish or insipid,” says Carroll. “She has a monumental approach to her subject, her work is never about me.”

As a young social worker, she realized that the onus of change was usually focused on one individual—the mother. “I felt there was a need to focus on the family as a unit, as well as the circumstances within which families try to function,” says Peretz.

“This is a woman not afraid of the world. Peretz gets inside her subjects, her places and paints their power,” says Carroll, who believes she paints “perfect images of the elusive substance of the shifting Cape.”

Peretz says she was strongly influenced by Cezanne’s technique of bringing three-dimensional landscapes into a two-dimensional format. “It’s how I think,” she says. She has begun to focus on what she refers to as “painterly challenges,” and is currently interested in issues of texture and surface. “I’m paying attention to the things I didn’t pay attention to before,” she says.

“Peretz begins with some basic elements of traditional landscape painting then introduces unusual applications, creating a new beauty on canvas free from sentiment or story,” says Carroll. “She applies paint precisely, her gestures as loose as good American Jazz, yet completely essential. The colors are harsh, not pretty, compositions simple and tough, the architecture monumental.”

As Peretz reflects on her public service career and her painting, it is clear she has beenher own person. Despite her wide circle of friends, family, professional connections, and involvement with many causes and activities, she cuts a solitary figure. She shares an active and close family life with her husband of 33 years, Martin Peretz, the Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic magazine. They have two children, Jesse and Evgenia, and Anne has two children, David and Lisa Farnsworth from an earlier marriage. They have four grandchildren. And ironically, despite her impressive 40-year track record of involvement, she describes herself as “marginally” politically active. “The extent of my current activity is talking on the phone, `getting out the vote’ sort of things,” she says, in a typically humble understatement of her contributions.

She also does not view herself as “part of the art world,” and goes so far as to say she has “never really belonged to any community,” that she is not institutionally connected. That view is as much humility and independence as it is lack of interest in “group identity.” She is refreshingly free of any need of organizational relationships to define her self.

After her years of activism, she remains optimistic and committed to her basic values, a refreshing reminder of the possibility of combining an artist’s vision, creativity and imagination with an activist’s ideals, values and energy. During an era of waning respect for public service and an increased interest in self, Peretz maintained her individuality while she dedicated herself to her own family and a large community of families. She balanced her art and her activism.

To learn more about Anne and her role as founder of the The Parenting Journey,  visit 





Ann Peretz tells a story about her several canvasses entitled Horse Leach Pond. The pond is by her summer place in Truro, on Cape Cod. It’s where she swims rain or shine since after painting, swimming is what she most likes to do. And as she swims, she looks over at this little wood jutting out into the water between herself and the far shore. This is the view, and this, the feeling, that makes her happy, and that is, for her, happiness. So she paints the pond that is happiness to feel and to see. And because Horse Leach Pond is always different, because it changes with the weather, time, and season, she paints it often, always differently, until, by now, she thinks she really knows that pond. Which is necessary, since the trouble with this view is this: it’s impossible to paint while you’re seeing it, since you’ve got to be in the pond, swimming, with your eyes just above the water’s surface.

A disarming creation myth: painting depicts something that cannot be depicted because you would literally sink if you tried. It disarms, because that something is so evidently more than the pond, more even than the view combined with the sensation of water, that something is nothing less than the happy experience, the condensation of the entirety of happiness and experience in that pond. It’s a myth, like the tale J.M.W. Turner spread about himself: how he lashed himself to the mast of a storm-tossed ship in order definitely to know what a tempest at sea really is. For with her story Peretz, with that sense of understatement that matches perfectly the temper of her art, gives painting its plot. Painting starts immersed in experience, but must take place elsewhere, in the studio. There the experience is remembered, painted, and repainted until the painting, each painting, is its own experience. Peretz calls this procedure “winnowing.”

At the very close of a recent interview, as if it were the last thing to keep in mind, Peretz noted smiling, “I never paint cheerfulness. I don’t like cheerful.” What then of the happiness at Horse Leach Pond, and of the satisfaction that her canvases thus entitled elicit? Like the Romantics, Peretz as discovered the tragedy of landscape. She has found in her stark subjects, as well as in her gently austere painterly manner, the sad inside of experience how happiness flares up as yearning. But she has also found a secret passage back again, painting pictures that, in ever more powerful ways, immerse us in their element, so that we ourselves must either see or sink.

Peretz’s new paintings build on her achievements, of 1996-97. She resists the duns of Truro, again breaking up the great horizon on vertical stretches of canvas. Her newest Dunes, consisting of four equal-sized panels, distills her characteristic approach. At the base, undulating surfaces of sand rise up toward the right, climaxing in a veritable mountain of duns that covers the horizon. These scuffed surfaces, loosely painted, offer tactile, at-hand entrance into the scene, as if somehow touching the dunes, painting them, and beholding their portrait were all one continuous fold. But Peretz also ruptures those surfaces through the polyptych format of the whole. The variable intervals between panels work partly to pull the eye from depth to surface, and from the vast seascape view to its material constitution as oil paint on stretched canvases. Partly, though, the intervals magnify depth by rhythmically measuring it against surface, and by pacing our eye through four discrete but infinite distances. For the tangible dunes only foreground the picture’s intangible essence: the horizon, painted as the meeting of two great, grey, turbulent planes oriented off-center to the right, around the merest indication of a rising sun. The vertical cuts between the canvases are thus repeated, and immeasurably exceeded, by the ocean between dunes and sky.

This decisive silhouetting of the at-hand against the infinitely removed within a watery medium recalls the Horse Leach Pond canvases (cat. Nos. 2, 4 and 6). Peretz has painted several new versions of that signature subject. In one, she has introduced colors that she otherwise studiously avoids: bright, hectic blues, and greens that are quite simply green. The familiar motif, painted in hues expectable in a landscape, becomes, by virtue of its unusually conventional treatment, deliberately citational and estranged, as if Peretz were saying, “Yes, sometimes the pond is blue and green,” and further, “Sometimes the pond looks like someone else’s picture.” Another version of Horse Leach Pond makes up for this, infecting its greens with helter-skelter pinks, and dissolving the whole right side of the picture into a fresh-colored wash.

Like Monet’s hay stacks, Peretz’s pictures of Horse Leach Pond are simultaneously autonomous experiments in color and portraits of differentiated conditions. But Peretz’s ponds are also moods. Moods evidence that experience is always also experience of oneself. They erupt less in moments when object and subject stand unified, than when a disparity between the two is felt, as when a cheerful scene brings sad thoughts to mind. Mood, the motif that underlies the multiple canvases of the pond, thus is a sort of experience of experience, its plot is of an impossible, oceanic grasping from here to there. A painting of rain on Horse Leach Pond renders this immediate. Peretz streaks her landscape with colors of that landscape not because, as she swam in it, rain on the pond looked exactly that way. Rather, this rain of paint reveals the motif perennially behind the motif, the view—here simply trees that might be green but never quite are—that’s always and never the same.

Peretz’s rendition of rain signals a departure in her recent work. Since 1996 her canvases have become more densely painted. Working often on a dark, prepared ground, she spreads colors in overlapping layers with a palette knife, creating thickly crafted surfaces. Two paintings of a marsh in Cape Cod exemplify this new, almost sculptured facture. The clumps of reeds look like they were carved out of vicious paint. Peretz builds up the reeds as if forward from the picture plane, which is allowed then to recede in the image of surrounding water. And that water is veritably swirled onto the canvas in the sheer exuberance of painterly gesture.

A group of small oil sketches documents Peretz’s endeavor to expand her technical arsenal. These intriguing pieces, which read like laboratory trials for her monumental pictures, utilize a mountain view to experiment with multiple paint surfaces: unprimed canvas, translucent underpaintings, matt passages of paint roughly applied, and shiny planes, where the palette knife has smoothed its path. It is this mixed tactility, part sculpted, part gestural, and emancipated from all decorative design, that, together with the structures developed in the polyptychs, has made possible some of Peretz’s strongest works to date: the large, square-format Tamariu Quarry (cat. Nos. 1 and 7), and the monumental portrait, also in square format, of trees on the coast of Spain.

When asked why she decided to paint on such a grand scale, Peretz lets her arm draw huge circles in the air. “I wanted to do that!” What was it, though, that enabled her to paint compelling pictures within this desire to immerse her whole body in the act o f painting, indeed to swim with her brush on the canvas? What had she learned beforehand, such that, on encountering such a dangerously large expanse, she was able to tackle it with blissful certainty? Certainly her triptychs taught her how to extend her images laterally through space, though without increasing canvas size. The intervals between panels formalized the individual compositions, making them each read as metonymies of something larger; and they endowed the whole with a rigorous internal structure. Peretz’s new large canvases eschew this enabling device, although the way she cuts her subjects off at the edges makes each huge painting read as if it were part of an even larger whole, so that even these canvases seem too small for her imagination. More crucially, though, Peretz has replaced the external formalism of the triptych with the internal logic of the perfect square. Like the triptych, the square canvas abstracts the image inscribed on it. It draws the images toward their isomorphic edges, so that, flattened, they stand forth as the mere painted surfaces they are.

The square fulfills the high modernist imperative that painting represents painting. In Peretz’s hand, however, squareness adds a powerful charge to the subject matter itself. Because the trees are not captured in a vertical format, because the quarry does not command the oblong view one might expect, trees and quarry become active, unpredictable forces continually making and remaking the format that contains them. Might not the quarry, as a massive vertical, require an upright rectangle even if the fringe of landscape at its top wanders laterally through the picture, like Peretz’s foreground dunes? Indeed the quarry consists of multiple planes of color, some square, some oblong, some tall and narrow. Thus, the question of a proper frame has already been asked internally as the question of the quarry’s shape.

Peretz is fully aware of the historical density of this motif. She knows that Cezanne depicted quarries as natural analogues to the structure of his paintings. Ambitiously magnifying Cezanne’s motif, she finds a perfect vehicle “to do that” with her brush. For labor on a canvas propped up vertically before the body feels somehow like labor on a quarry. The quarry’s surface, that vertical cut through the landscape’s horizontal reach, becomes, when painted, an engulfing expanse. What is distinctive about Peretz’s Tamariu Quarry, though, is not the structural intelligence it demonstrates, or its sureness of touch and coloristic range. Rather, in it Peretz has opened her composition to the sheer contingency of the visible world The heap of gravel in the foreground, and the three wooden poles staked out before it, distract Peretz from the structures that typically interest her, causing her to attend to structures that obtain in the world nonetheless. It is in passages like these that one feels Peretz’s subject exceeding any “winnowed” experience of it. This new, uncanny excess is most apparent in her masterpiece of 1998, Tamariu Woods 1 (cat. No. 8).

The impact of this work derives from the palpable presence of those massive, bare trunks combined with their dizzying extension into space. In the long paint strokes with which she models these trunks, and in their trajectory up and out into the abyss, Peretz repeats mimetically the exhilaration and the risk of painting on such a large scale. It is worth asking why we think the trees grow outward as well as upward. For one thing, because we observe their spreading bows as if from below, yet feel as if we observe their trunks from across, we tend to surmise that these trunks rise up and away from us at a diagonal. Peretz supports this surmise by picturing the trees, in their seaward leaning, partly from the side, so that their diagonal becomes registered in profile. Moreover, the whole surrounding landscape hints at an outward lean. Because the foreground trees tower above those in the idle-ground, we deduce that we stand atop a steep slope, and that the trees lean because they are rooted to the slope Of course, one could imagine that Peretz simply lifted her eyes to some leaning trees and painted what stood above her, rather than obliquely before her, like someone photographing a skyscraper from the sidewalk. But this structural possibility is counteracted by the horizon—that inheritance of Peretz’s triptychs—which announces that the scene is viewed looking straight forward. And yet, although we feel confident of our mental picture of the observer and the observed (i.e., beholder gazing dead ahead, trees growing on a slanted slope) the whole arrangement complicates a purely optical understanding of the landscape. For because of the picture’s scale and the way the trees within it are painted, the eye does not simply scan the trees up and down but seems to inch forward along their oblique extensions.

Peretz’s perspective is a consistently embodied one. What she aims at showing (of these trees, as of the dunes and pond at Truro) is how things look from inside a body. This body is simultaneously localized and mobile. It mirrors its own mobility in visible objects that, when scanned, make one aware of the physical activity involved in viewing. Following the tree trunks up to their branches, one senses the movements of one’s own eyes repeating those of the painter. Peretz manages to make us feel not simply that we behold trees on the coast of Spain, but that we stand there in our bodies, as well. She heightens this doubling by making her effigies almost life-sized. This invites us not merely to scan the trees with our eyes, but to reach out and touch them.

And it is here that the drama of the picture unfolds. For having surmised that the trees rise from a precipitous slope, the viewer knows what touching the trees would risk. To reach forward toward such a leaning trunk would mean to fall forward from one’s upright posture, until one lies supported only by the tree. Peretz indicates this vertiginous gesture by cutting the trees off at their base, so that we cannot see the ground from which they rise. The picture thus invites us to lean forward into an abyss. And experience tells us that the return will be difficult. We could not, for example, right ourselves by swinging a leg toward the ground, since under the tree the terrain slopes away. Our options are only these: remain where we are, climb further up, or slither backward to the unseen ground on the upward side of the tree.

Even if the viewer does not imagine this retreat, the picture teaches “humility,” in the root sense of the baseness of earth (humus). It draws us out and up to the ocean and sky, even as it recollects the dust that we are and will become. Peretz thus succeeds in picturing both the immersion in the world that she termed “happiness” and the necessary withdrawal that forbids her any cheer.

Joseph Koerner is the Victor S. Thomas professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.