239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
57
 | 
June 6, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

Can You Paint Me in a Half Hour?

“YOU KNOW CHRIST didn’t look like a woman, the way all the pictures of Him look.” That was Juliet Thompson, talking to God, when she was just ten years old. “Please let me paint Him when I grow up as the King of Men.” She held onto this wish for the next twenty-six years.

Juliet lived, and wrote, with her heart on her sleeve. Her diary is filled with Biblical metaphors, capitalized pronouns, and a highly personal, poetic language which, while heartwarming, can also be off-putting if you don’t like that kind of thing. It is a diary, after all, not a newspaper, and it offers a unique insight into the kinds of close personal relationships ‘Abdu’l-Bahá formed with a handful of Americans — in this case an effusive, rising portrait artist from Greenwich Village.

Juliet traveled to ‘Akká to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1909. But her first meeting with him dashed her hopes of ever painting the Christ. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá walked into a room, she wrote, “His effulgence struck me blind.” “Could the sun with the whole universe full of its radiations, or endless flashes of lightning be captured in paint?” Besides, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was adamant that he wasn’t Christ.

Then, the night before the SS Cedric docked in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cabled a message: “On My arrival in America Miss Juliet Thompson shall paint a wonderful portrait of Me.” (Those would be Juliet’s pronouns.) She described her “surprise and dismay, fear, joy and gratitude all mixed together” at hearing the news.

On Monday, June 5, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sat down with Juliet at 309 West 78th Street. “Can you paint Me in a half hour?” he asked. Juliet was appalled. It usually took her at least two weeks to paint a head. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá conceded: “Well, I will give you three half hours. You mustn’t waste My time, Juliet.”

The conditions were far from perfect. Juliet jammed herself into a small space in the basement for the portrait. She sat, but was used to standing. It was dim, but she usually painted in clear daylight. This was a woman, who, when she went on to paint Grace Coolidge, the First Lady, told the President to leave the room because she couldn’t stand the sound of him chewing an apple.

As she sat in front of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, something amazing happened. “All fear fell away from me,” she wrote, “and it was as though Someone Else saw through my eyes, worked through my hand. All the points, all the planes in that matchless Face were so clear to me that my hand couldn’t put them down quickly enough, couldn’t keep pace with the clarity of my vision.”

Four years later, in a Washington Times article about her painting, she described the experience: “there was something there, unrepressed, evident, unmistakable.”

During their final sitting, Juliet held an empty brush and searched her portrait for a missing stroke. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then abruptly rose from his chair.

“It is finished,” he said.

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  • Marywilson19

    Interesting that the original was lost… Makes me wonder why.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Candace-Moore-Hill/736896802 Candace Moore Hill

    Uploading this link to my Juliet Thompson page at Pinterest, with all the online images of her paintings that I can find:   http://pinterest.com/candacemhill/juliet-thompson-baha-i-artist/

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      Thanks Candace, that’s a great collection of paintings you’ve collected and put up. And thanks for mentioning the article and our project on your Pinterest page.

  • Barmak Kusha

    Sad that the original was lost. I hope it is extant somewhere in safe keeping and can be found someday…. 

  • Winona Lineberger

    What an artist, to capture ‘Abdul-Baha’s loving expression and his facial characteristics, in such a short time.  I loved reading Juliet’s diary but the package containing my copy never made it to Costa Rica when I traveled here last year as a pioneer.  I miss it.  Oh well, I guess we have to make sacrifices, and who knows but somebody else found it and will benefit spiritually from it.

  • Susan Hegarty

    It’s interesting to ponder the loss of the portrait – I’m traveling and don’t have the published diary with me, but as I recall Marzieh Gail states in the introduction that the portrait deteriorated over time and could not be restored. But Juliet herself left a kind of answer to this puzzle. There is a page in her own hand in the National Baha’i Archives, the text of which did not make it into her final manuscript of the diary (which, as has been pointed out, was really more of a memoir, as it was revised by her repeatedly over several decades). She writes, “But I have begun to see lately that it is not for the portrait He is sitting for me and I sometimes wonder if I ever shall finish it. The destined results of these sittings, I feel sure, is that His spiritual Image may be burned into my soul. He is keeping me close to Him now for this purpose, and the painting of the portrait is just an excuse…”
    Fascinating, then – the gift He gave her was through the process of creation, not the portrait itself. She goes on to express her wish that she could leave something of His beauty to the future. I believe she has. The portrait of the Master that survived is her diary.

    • Sbentler

      Beautifully expressed. so true.

  • William Maxwell

    These stories bring that amazing period of history to life.  Thank you
    William Maxwell

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=708836273 Maria Chouchtari

    I could never be an artist in the way Juliet was, but I loved her thoughts and her mind, her creative spirit and talent. Of course a wondrously humble and spiritual person who loved people and Abdu’l-Baha knew she was special. She could relate to Him in a very personal way, with love and fire. He let her paint him and that fire was radiantly apparent in the strokes of her brush. So special was this portrait and the amazing stories that went with it. Thank you for sharing this amazing story.

  • Carol Bowers

    A few years ago I purchased a picture of the Greatest Name in an old picture frrame. The items for sale at this fundraiser were given to the Baha’is by the family of a woman who had lived in Louisiana and had recently passed away. I placed the picture on the mantle above my fireplace. Later while sitting in my living room reading “The Diary of Juliet Thompson” my cat jumped up on the mantle (which he was not in the habbit of doing) and knocked off the picture breaking the frame. Behind the Greatest Name was a copy of this picture of Abdu’l-Baha and on the back was written by hand an inscription to Esther from Juliet. The coincidence of the picture with Juliet’s handwriting appearing while I was reading this book was, well, amazing. This picture is now in the Archives of the World Center but I keep a copy of it in my home where ever that may be, most recently in Chongqing, China.

    • Susan Hegarty

      Very grateful to you for sharing this marvelous story. Leave it to a cat to reveal a mystery!

  • Samantha Toth

    Why does this make me want to cry in a good way?