Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son
Claude Monet, 1875
I’ll confess that I practically failed the one art history class I took in college. I did go into it with a genuine interest in learning, but there was something less engaging about watching slideshows in a dark room with 300+ other people while a random grad student told you what was special about a hundred paintings at a time.
I still have a hard time talking about why I like this painting or that painting, or even breaking down visual art in general. It felt like a particular weakness for me when I was writing about comics 4-5 years ago.
When I do have the occasion to look at art, I often find myself searching for some sort of moment of deep emotional resonance with a particular work, and I’ve usually come up short. It may be because this approach is the cultural equivalent of expecting to meet the love of your life every time you go to a bar. This is a crude and clumsy analogy, because if I have my own art form, it is the crafting of crude and clumsy analogies.
Then I went out and saw this last week. My mother-in-law was in town and she wanted to see some art, so we took her to the National Gallery of Art, which is a place that has much more than some art. It has a lot of art.
(Side note: every museum is free here, and I am a massive chucklehead for not taking advantage of this as often as humanly possible. Thank you for subsidizing this with your tax dollars.)
I’ll confess that I wouldn’t have chosen to do this otherwise; I was being a good sport, and Mama Sheryl (no one calls her this) is wonderful human being to whom it is simply impossible to say no.
Up to a certain point, my reactions were basically as such:
"This is a huge museum."
"Wow, there is a lot of famous art here."
"That painting is famous. People talk about how famous it is. It looks very nice."
"I bet Impressionists painted this way because they all had shitty eyesight and the glasses weren’t so great back then."
"I wonder how long we’re going to stay here."
Then I happened upon Woman With a Parasol and my heart stopped. And time slowed down. And the countless tourists disappeared from view. I didn’t know where my wife was, but I couldn’t wait until she got there so I could share this with her.
Despite everything written above, I have always admired the Impressionists. There is something I appreciate about that style - it’s hard for me to put words to it. Email a grad student, they’ll tell you what I’m supposed to say.
What got me about this was that it felt like Monet managed to capture a perfect moment from his own life. Of course this took hours, and I’ll never know the original context. But every so often I’ll look over at my wife smiling at me and I’ll think, “I wish this were a painting that I can hang on my wall.” I don’t have that ability.
While I looked at this painting, I actually felt myself stepping into Monet’s life on that day, seeing his world as he saw it. And for just a minute or two, I lived in Argenteuil in 1875.
I’m still not sure if I could tell you what makes this painting better than any other, but I do know that it provided me with a moment of transcendence, one that opened me up to every other piece of artwork that I saw for the rest of the day.
I suppose the appreciation of art is a practice just like anything else, something I need to keep working on. Who knows if this painting will make me feel the same way next time. Maybe it’ll be something else.