Fold Up Her Tent: DC’s Most Famous Homeless Woman Goes Home

There are many homeless people who have become known, as a result of their particular idiosyncrasies, to Washingtonians and visitors to the capital over the years. For example, there is “the whale guy”, a heavyset man who is usually seated around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown, wearing a foam hat in the form of a giant whale. Or there is the super-jacked, somewhat aggressive “workout guy”, who is usually shirtless and sporting a big pair of headphones that are not plugged in to any listening device. And then there was “the tent lady”, whose passing you may have missed during the massive blizzard that hit the city last weekend.

Concepción “Conchita” Picciotto died on January 25th at the estimated age of 80. She was a fixture of Lafayette Square, the park located just across the street from the White House, for more than thirty years. I first met her when I was in Washington for the March for Life, some decades ago, and she spoke to me and some other teens whom I was with about how killing people with nuclear weapons and killing people through abortion were all of a piece.

Hard as it may be to believe in a post-9/11 world, at one time she was not the only protestor living in a tent in the President’s Park, but by the end of her life, she was the only one allowed to remain there. After a recent accident she moved into a residence for homeless women, but still came out to her peace post in the park on a daily basis.

María de la Inmaculada Concepción Martín, to use her maiden name, was an immigrant to this country from Spain. By the time I became aware of her, she was already so well-known back in her native country that my relatives called her “la gallega loca”, the crazy Galician lady, as she hailed from the city of Vigo. She claimed to have been orphaned during the Civil War, and that tragedy plus her subsequently turbulent personal life most likely contributed to her later mental imbalance. For Conchita was undeniably mentally ill: if you spoke with her for any length of time, that fact was readily apparent.

Like all Iberians worthy of the name, Conchita was as stubborn as a bull. Whether or not you agreed with her views on nuclear disarmament, Israel, the military-industrial complex, or any number of conspiracy theories which she latched onto and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, her beliefs were most sincerely held. Once a Spaniard becomes convinced of the veracity of their position, he would die or lose all he has rather than concede it.

I recall that when I was a college student, and found myself wandering my way through the park on a quiet weekday morning when there were virtually no tourists about, I sat down with Conchita and had a long conversation about Spain. We exchanged some very old jokes about Franco, but we also shared what we loved about Spain, a country that had passed into Conchita’s distant and dented memory. All Spaniards when they meet, particularly when not in Spain, must sit down and almost immediately begin to talk about food, but one also must inevitably come to have an argument of some sort about Catholicism. Even though Conchita had long ago given up on organized religion, there were still popular stories and devotions which, when recalled to her, held a faint, but rose-colored glow of her long-gone Catholic childhood.

We parted on good terms, even though she could not agree with me on the Church, and even though I was not particularly interested in her tinfoil hat theories. Though I never had a long talk with her again, whenever I found myself in the area I would drop by to say hello, or I would exchange passing greetings with her in Spanish – “God bless you, auntie!” I would say, on my way to somewhere else. “And you too, handsome!” she would inevitably call back. In a sort of way, Conchita became part of my routine, whenever I found myself around the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the life of Conchita Picciotto as little more than that of just another mentally unbalanced homeless person, howling into the wind against all reason – as if “just another” was enough of a justification for ignoring her, or indeed anyone else in similar circumstances. She was not, at least not intentionally, a fool for God, in the way that St. Francis of Assisi or St. Benedict Joseph Labre were, raising eyebrows with their bizarre views and behavior put to His service. Her yearning for peace was at best parallel to the peace which Christ wants all of us to pursue, and no doubt God has been able to work through that in some of the lives whom she touched. However I do think that hers is an example of how to draw people’s attention to something in which one passionately believes, through little more than perseverance and determination.

That Conchita later came to be profiled in newspapers and magazines, lauded by leftist filmmakers and political activists, was not something she set out to achieve, like an internet celebrity seeking clicks and followers. Rather, she set about doing her work, and kept at it, night and day, rain or shine, heat or chill, demonstrating a resolve which I daresay is rarely met among those of us who play it safe in life. She was no Mother Teresa, but we can still learn from her example. And I shall miss our greetings which, I suspect for both of us, were like a little reminder of a well-loved, but faraway place.


The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.


Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)

Playing Soccer With A Michelangelo

The Prado certainly seems to be on a roll lately.

First there was news of the new van der Weyden exhibition, which I wrote about last week, and now news that the only Michelangelo sculpture in Spain is being put on display for three months at the museum, following a twenty-year restoration. The work, a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist owned by the Dukes of Medinacelli, is not particularly impressive. And yet the story of why it needed so much restoration should not be swept under the rug, as art historians tend to do these days when it comes to those with whom they have anticlerical sympathies.

In about 1495 in Florence, Michelangelo carved a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist for Lorenzo de Medici, but no trace of it has been found in Italy. Current thinking is that the statue was one mentioned in correspondence as being given as a gift by Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, the private secretary of Emperor Charles V. He in turn installed the statue in his family’s funerary chapel.  De los Cobos’ titles, etc. eventually came into the Medinacelli family, as did the family chapel, located in the Andalusian city of Úbeda. 

There the statue stayed for nearly 400 years, until in the early 1930’s debate began to swirl around whether the work was the missing Michelangelo. At this point however, events took a tragic turn with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Anticlerical leftist (laughably referred to as “Republicans” by most historians) troops sacked, burnt, and destroyed churches and ecclesiastical works of art all over the country, and the chapel housing the remains of the de los Cobos was no exception. Worse, the statue of the Young St. John was smashed to pieces, with the soldiers reportedly using the head as a soccer ball for fun.

In 1994 the Medinacellis had the fragments sent to Florence for restoration, which took twenty years to complete. Today, the statue is about 40% original, with the remaining 60% made of resin and other materials. It was put together using old images of the piece before it was damaged, and with the assistance of modern technological scanning and measuring through computer assistance, to achieve a truly remarkable result, given what the restorers started with. 

This being the first time that the more-or-less-complete statue will be on public display in a major city, for art historians and connoisseurs this will be a wonderful opportunity to finally air some of the questions, assertions, doubts, and so on that often come with uncertain attributions. Debate will likely be lively and ongoing for some time. It is unfortunate that such wonton destruction however, was the catalyst for it.


The statue after being vandalized