The Fallibility of Memory

Even being absolutely certain that you know something does not mean it is, in fact, true.

(National Gallery of London).

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Jane Grey moments before execution
The whole picture: Paul Delaroche’s portrait of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), the 16-year-old was queen of England for nine days. (National Gallery of London).

In the past several years, I’ve read a number of articles and books about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Many of the examples of people who swore they had seen something, only to be confronted with a truth that was vastly different, were amusing, shocking, and even horrifying (in those cases where the death penalty was involved). Since I’m personally not good at remembering faces, I’ve always been relieved I’ve never had to be such a witness myself.

But I just learned how fallible and tricky even a very vivid conviction can be, even when it’s something that doesn’t involve any kind of felony or misdemeanor — even when it’s just a painting in a museum.

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned seeing a movie about Lady Jane Grey, the unfortunate 16-year-old girl who was queen of England for nine days before being deposed by Mary Tudor and later beheaded. I told him there was a dramatic and very moving large painting of the execution on display at the Metropolitan Museum — the beautiful blindfolded girl trying to find the block on which to rest her head, the hooded executioner burying his face in his hands at the horrible act he was about to commit. “It’s an extraordinary picture,” I said. “Probably even more heart-rending than the movie.” I looked online to show it to him, but there was nothing on the museum’s website.

Last week, when I was at the museum, I went to the gallery where I knew the painting was displayed. It wasn’t there. I asked a couple of guards and museum personnel if they knew what had happened to it — and one them said he thought he remembered it, but it might have been removed for cleaning.

I went to the gallery where I knew the painting was displayed. It wasn’t there.

I wrote to the museum asking if anyone could help. In a very short time, I got an email in reply: “Is the attached image the one you remember? If so, it had been here for an exhibition called Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism in 2003-2004. The artist’s name is Paul Delaroche.”

So the painting that I would have sworn I had seen just a few months ago hadn’t been in the museum for over 12 years! And I had obviously created a whole scenario for the wretched executioner that wasn’t in the picture at all. I will try to keep this in mind the next time I’m talking about something that I’m positive I saw or that I absolutely knew happened. I’ll try to be more humble about things I’m sure I know. I’ll try to remember this lesson — but I’ll probably forget.

This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


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