In an early scene, Enobarbus, who is Anthony's lieutenant, says of Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. . .
Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene ii, lines 271-274
That phrase--infinite variety--applies to one person in the context of the play, but I can't help but think of this phrase and apply it to all humanity.
Today, my husband and I sat at our customary Saturday morning breakfast in our local diner. I was casually looking around, and suddenly said--I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of the human face. My husband--who is a seasoned people watcher--agreed. He remarked that he recently spent time sitting and watching the parade of people that passed by him while he was at a conference.
People's faces. Think about it--the raw materials are relatively limited. Two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth--all assembled within the frame of a face, but within those limitations, so many variations. I find it just plain astounding.
It reminds me of two questions our daughter asked when she was a growing girl. She was pondering infinite variety in these questions. One time she asked me if there was any place in the United States that had never had a human walk upon it. What a wonderful (and unanswerable) question.
She topped that question when she asked one day whether or not we would run out of music. I wasn't quite sure what she meant, so she explained--there are only so many musical notes, and only so many ways of putting them together. When will we run out of new songs? Rather like my wondering about the endless variety of human faces.
One of my favorite painters is Thomas Eakins. I have read quite a bit about him, including his somewhat misanthropic life. He was not a warm and fuzzy person. One of the things that made him particularly controversial was his insistence on studying the human body, and on painting full nudes. The prudishness of America found his penchant for nudes, well, scandalous.
Eakins was known as a portraitist, although he was out-shone by his contemporary John Singer Sargeant who was widely regarded as the best portrait painter of his era. When I look at Sargeant's portraits, however, there is something cloying and too sweet about them. Oh, they are charming enough, but there is no humanity in them. They are just pretty paintings.
Eakins knew how to paint a portrait in such a way that all the infinite variety of humanity is caught therein. Years ago, I saw Eakins' painting of his wife, an artist in her own right, Susan Hannah MacDowell, which was on display in the then newly opened Hirshhorn Gallery. I loved the painting on first viewing it, and still love it. This painting is a PORTRAIT.
So much humanity in this lovely face. In her eyes there is a knowing weariness; she has seen much. There is triumph, there is resignation. There is beauty, there is decay. Infinite variety indeed.