Encountering Monet At The Musee d’Orsay

Reading Gadling’s marvelous Museum Month posts has reminded me of a trip I made two decades ago to Paris. I had fallen in love with that exhilarating city in the mid-1970s, when I lived there for two successive summers, first after my junior year in college and then after graduation. I returned in 1988 to celebrate the city, and as part of that celebration, I wanted to write an essay about the poignancy and power of the artworks I had discovered at the Louvre, the Musee Rodin, the Musee de Cluny, the Petit Palais, the Musee d’Orsay, and many other museums and galleries.

First I thought I would write about all the showplaces for art that I liked in Paris, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t possibly do justice to so many places in a compact piece. I had to focus. I considered describing my favorite three museums, then just one museum, then three rooms in that museum, then three favorite pieces of art there. But though I narrowed my focus more and more, every one of these subjects still seemed too broad.

Finally I decided to focus on one painting in one museum, my favorite painting in all of Paris. I installed myself near that painting for about an hour, and scribbled in my journal. I have that journal before me now. Here’s what I wrote.I have been looking at Monet’s “Les coquelicots,” the painting of two women and children walking through a field of bright red poppies on a sunny, cloud-dappled day, for about 40 minutes. It moves me just as profoundly now as it did when I was last in Paris 12 years ago; it still tugs deep within me, cuts through all the layers to something fresh and fundamental and childlike.

At first I stared at it closely, my nose within a foot of the canvas, so close that I could see the black-dot eyes of the child in the foreground – something I had never seen before, or at least never remembered seeing.

Get that close and you reduce the painting to its elements: layers of oil paint on canvas, brush strokes, dabs, tiny tip-tips with the brush. You realize just how fragile a thing a painting is, and just how common. And you realize too that it was made by a man – fragile, common – who stood at the canvas and thought: “a little more red here,” dab, dab; “a cloud there,” push, push; “how can I capture that light?”

Look at the painting closely this way for a few minutes and you break it down into an intricate complexity of colors and textures and forms.

Then step back and – voila! – all of a sudden it is a composed whole, a painting: a cloud-bright sky and poppy-bright field, a woman with a fancy hat and a parasol and a child almost hidden by the tall grasses in the foreground, and in the background another woman and a child almost obscured against a distant stand of trees. They are on a walk, or a picnic – a story begins to compose itself, to take on a life inside and outside the canvas.

And you realize that this is a kind of miracle, that colors and shapes dabbed on a piece of cloth 115 years ago have somehow reached across time and culture to touch you.

Look long enough and feel deeply enough, and your eyes fill with tears.

And when you feel these wet, cool, unexpected tears, you look around you suddenly as if waking from a dream, and see men and women in shorts, blue jeans, dresses and sportcoats, holding guidebooks and pointing at the canvas and sighing, or whispering in passionate appreciation.

You feel strangely displaced – for a moment it was your painting, or rather, you were a part of it, and now you are outside it again – but then you think, “This too is part of the miracle, that one painting can touch so many people.”

You think of art’s extraordinary power, that a scattering of people and poppies in a field can push age, despair, fatigue and cynicism away, can focus you so intensely on this time, this place; that time, that place.
You stand close to the canvas again and see the complexity of colors – the fields all gray, brown, green, yellow-green; the poppies red and pink; the sky a mixture of light and dark blues; the clouds gray, purple, white.

You see that the forms are simple: a gently rolling landscape; smoothly, sparingly suggested people. And that the child in the foreground holds flowers that are almost the same color as the band in his (her?) hat.
You step back one last time and see peace, lightness, a sense of infinite wonder and potential, a childlike purity.

And when you return to the luminous streets you know you will hold that vision in your head, like a handful of flowers on a country-bright day.

You know that you have returned to Paris. You know that, deep inside, you were never away.

[flickr image via biscarotte]