Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The brilliant young Mathematician Evariste Galois was killed in a duel when he was only 20. His biographer, E.T. Bell, described the last night of Galois' life this way:
All night long he had spent the fleeting hours feverishly dashing off his scientific last will and testament, writing against time to glean a few of the great things in his teeming mind before the death he saw could overtake him. Time after time he broke off to scribble in the margin "I have not time; I have not time," and passed on to the next frantically scrawled outline. What he wrote in those last desperate hours before the dawn will keep generations of mathematicians busy for hundreds of years.
Later biographers believe Bell's account to be a little overheated; for example, Galois did not invent his famous theorem that very night, he had been working on it for some time. Still, it is clear that when faced with almost certain death the next morning, Galois' defense was to keep doing what he did best, and to do as much of it as possible before his time ran out. His parting words were:
There are a few things left to be completed in this proof. I have not the time....I hope some men will find it profitable to sort out this mess. I embrace you with effusion.
Which brings us to Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931). As a child growing up in Missouri, all Sterrett wanted to do was draw. There weren't many opportunities for artists in Missouri back then, but as a young teenager Sterrett audaciously entered the Kansas State Fair art competition and won three first prizes. Encouraged, Sterrett went to Chicago at age 15 to attend high school and study art. The Art Institute was so impressed with her that it gave her a full scholarship.

When Sterrett reached 19, two things happened: first, she received a commission to illustrate her very first book (Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Segur). Second, she came down with tuberculosis which soon began to sap her strength. The race was on.

For the rest of her short life, Sterrett worked as hard as her failing strength would allow, illustrating Tanglewood Tales, the Arabian Nights and Myths and Legends.

By the time she turned 22, she had to enter a sanatorium where she could only work for short periods of time before resting. Yet, Sterrett's exhaustion doesn't show up in her pictures. You don't see her taking shortcuts or compromising the quality of her work. She seemed intent on making her pictures as perfect as she could, to isolate them from the limitations and frustrations of her life.

She knew the game was fixed against her; she wouldn't have a lifetime to improve her skills or compile a major body of work, the way other artists did. Working under those restrictions it might have made more sense to give up or resort to drink, but still she persisted. Such time as she had, that time was going to be devoted to making pictures. She was almost done illustrating Myths and Legends when she died.

The local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an obituary that remarked upon the disparity between her life and the exotic world she drew:
Her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood....Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young girl's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

I view each of Sterrett's pictures, like I view Galois' journal, as a little pearl of resistance against the fact that life is unfair and death comes too soon. Not much of a consolation, you say? It seems to be all we've got, which is why it might make sense to pay attention to her achievement.