Monday, October 4, 2010

Old Friends

Do you have a favorite artist? I inherited my love of the Impressionists from my mother, who filled her bookshelves with beautiful hardcover books about Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir; always wrote in a diary full of photos of Impressionist paintings; and even grew her own water lilies in an antique wooden tub on our front porch. Throughout my childhood, we owned a little piece of Monet’s garden, right there on our front porch in rural Indiana.

Ever since I was little, my Mom took me to art museums in local colleges or in the nearby larger cities, and as an adult I always go to the famous museums when I travel. I have stood in front of that Seurat painting in Chicago, where Ferris Buehler’s friend stood transfixed by his thousands of dots. In New York I sat for a full thirty minutes on a bench in front of Monet’s haystacks, trying to absorb the artist’s vantage point from which he viewed his simple subject during the passing of the seasons, the passage of time. I’ve seen Michaelangelo’s David and Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait at the Age of 63” (not Impressionists but still worthy!) In Paris I bypassed the tourist-packed Louvre and opted for the Musee de l’Orangerie, where I stumbled upon the room where Monet’s life-sized paintings of his water gardens were the only thing in the room – an oval room almost entirely covered by his garden scenes, so you could sit in the middle and actually be there, amid the muted blues of the water, the greens of the vegetation, the hazy dots of colorful flowers.

When I moved to Las Vegas years ago, the Bellagio was about to open, and amid the tacky neon signs of the Strip’s casinos, the Bellagio’s marquis read “Coming Soon: Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne.” They were about to open their new art museum, and I remember calling my Mom and telling her it was a sign that I was in the right place. And not long after that, I moved into a new apartment and learned that the construction across the street was for a library with an attached art museum. Another sign.

Last weekend I was in San Francisco for a wedding and was happy to discover that the Musee de Orsay’s traveling collection was in Golden Gate Park’s de Young . It was an exhibition of the Impressionists. I happily paid the $25 admission and stepped into the exhibit’s first room. And it was like coming home. A cheesy statement, but it’s true. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I walked from painting to painting. And after taking in the artwork, I also enjoyed looking at the people who stood next to me: the older couple who listened to their self-guided tour headsets and nodded at the interesting facts, the man in a suit who may have been there on his lunch break, the older woman who reminded me of my mom as she sat on the bench in the middle of the room and just absorbed the atmosphere. These people shared with me a camaraderie – bound by our appreciation of, and connection to, these artists.

My sentimental reaction surprised me at the time, but looking back, it’s no wonder that I got emotional. These paintings – these artists - have been with me throughout my life, in the pages of the books in our living room, all over the world during my travels, in that tub on the front porch, and in the Impressionistic brush strokes of my mother’s own paintings. Seeing the Impressionists is like visiting old friends. Like visiting family.

After my mom died, the school where she worked offered to put up a stone fountain in her honor, in the school’s courtyard outside the room where she had taught art for 24 years. But at my request, instead they installed a water garden, and water lilies, to carry on her love of the Impressionists to future generations. What could have been a better tribute?

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