Paris is magical every time I go, and it never fails to move me, but a visit a couple of weeks ago was especially thought provoking and emotional. Not only was I with one of my most important friends, a retired French teacher who is a veritable walking encyclopedia of French art, history and culture, but we visited the Musée d’Orsay. It was my first visit to this gem of a museum which houses perhaps the most important collection of Impressionist paintings and sculptures in the world, including pieces by Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Gaugin, Serratt, Monet and Van Gogh. The latter two are my personal favorites, and their effect on my personal life, beyond simply my attitude toward art, has been penetrating and intense.
I loved Van Gogh the first time I saw one of his works, way back in elementary school. It was probably La nuit etoilée (The Starry Night) or one of his famous paintings of sunflowers, all of which are spectacular, and as I have long been a fan of both sunflowers and stars in a night sky, it makes sense that I would love his work. But then in high school I saw some of Monet’s paintings of gardens. I was smitten. Such a way he had with light; how the light plays on his canvasses, as if it is really light rather than his particular way with oil based paints. Not only was he a master of light, he was French, to boot! I was very taken by the paintings of the Giverny gardens where he lived. I saw an exhibition of the water lilies series in the 1990’s at the Chicago Museum of Art and could’ve happily spent days there, seeing and re-seeing them. I still loved Van Gogh, but alas, he had faded some in favor of the REAL “painter of light.”
Then I went to the Musée d’Orsay, and there before me were more than 20 awe-inspiring pieces by the tortured and introspective Dutch artist. I had never seen any of his work “in person,” as it were, before. Ah, Monsieur Monet, I regret to inform you that you no longer inhabit first-artist’s-place in my heart. De Heer Van Gogh has usurped you, and rightfully so.
Paris’ Musée d’Orsay has some of Van Gogh’s most important pieces, among them La Nuit Etoilée sur la Rhône (not to be confused with the more famous, La nuit etoilée, housed at the NY Museum of Art – next trip to NYC, guess where I’ll be heading — La chambre de Van Gogh à Arles, some of the sunflowers series, and several self portraits. They each exhibit the artist’s trademark swirling strokes, bold color, and thickly-laid paint. Nevertheless, each is unique and filled with emotion. I found myself without words and wishing I could just be alone with them for a bit instead of surrounded by chattering tourists.
I will never forget the sensation, deep within me, somewhere in the most quiet and hidden place in my soul, when I rounded a corner and there, side by side, were La Nuit Etoilée sur la Rhône and La Chambre de Van Gogh à Arles. My breath left me. I realized after several seconds that my mouth was hanging open and I had forgotten to breathe. I sucked in air and felt tears sting my eyes. Something about the two pieces overwhelmed me and all I could think about was the connection between the painter, me and God. I felt so lucky, so blessed, to be able to be there, at that moment, and feel what I was feeling
I couldn’t express it at the time but upon reflection, I realized what moved me so. You see, standing in front of these pieces was like standing in church. Now please, Christian friends, don’t misunderstand. Think about it: the gift that this man was given was profound and inspiring. He, the son of a Protestant preacher, spent his early years ministering to the Belgian poor in the name of Christ, but his truest act of worship was in using the unique gift God had given him, and use it he did, for very few but very prolific years. He, perhaps without even knowing it, allowed God to speak through him in a way that could reach people who would never step into a church, as well as those of us who do.
Very few of us are able to look within ourselves the way Van Gogh did, and when we do, we often find things we wish weren’t there. In spite of his giftedness, Vincent couldn’t make sense of himself, his life, his place in the world; mental and physical illnesses dogged him his whole life. How can we forget that he actually cut off a piece of his own ear, and finally killed himself at only 37 years? In spite of what he gave to us, he couldn’t give himself the freedom to live and be as God had made him. It was, somehow, too much for him. He thought he had wasted his life! As I stood in the museum, drinking in those famous and beautiful pieces, I quietly thanked God for inspiring him, and for allowing me to be in that particular place at that moment.
What lessons can I learn from him? Hmmm…first, I suppose, to live the way God made me, to use my gifts (however meager they seem to be) to inspire others, and to not let anything from without or within prevent me from sharing those gifts with others. I won’t ever paint a masterpiece, belt out a showtune like Patti Lupone, or inhabit a character like Meryl Streep, but I can leave my mark on my students, my pets, my family, and my friends. Next, maybe, to allow myself to be moved and changed by the gifting of others. I can be grateful for Vincent and others like him, and be inspired by him and by people I know personally, people who live intentionally and thoughtfully, who do the best they can with the gifts they’ve been given. I can visit museums and see Vincent’s work, do the best work I can do, be grateful for all the ridiculously wonderful things in my life, and be thrilled as always, every time I make it to Paris.
Speak on, Vincent. I’m learning from you yet.