Today, in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Monet and his water lilies brought me to tears.
The work, entitled Nymphéas, spans four concave walls in one room, and then in another, and is the only work in each. I have seen Monet’s large works before, and every time I do, the same idea comes to me: how was it possible to do this? The canvases are huge. Seen from a distance, the images make clear, Impressionistic sense: this is water, here is reflection, I spy a blossom.
Yet stepping closer brings something entirely different: brush strokes in every direction, with varying intensity, colors that can’t be seen from afar, where they instead play important, supporting roles. Up close, it is impossible to see it all; the canvases look like they are filled with pretty, disjointed, and perhaps random marks. But that’s not it at all, and here I marvel at the artist’s genius. In his mind, Monet had a vision that transcended what he could actually see in front of him while painting. He knew to put a stroke of lilac here, partnering periwinkle or lime, using an additional amount of force in certain areas, underlining occasionally in crimson that he knew would fade when the whole image was seen at once. It boggles my non-artistic mind to understand how he did this.
So today I stood closely, as closely as I could, and tried to grasp what Monet could envision. Of course I could not, though as his audience, he has already given me his finished product. He has, in fact, given me his imagination. Marveling at that caught my breath. It is a wondrous thing.
As I walked, slowly, along the length of the four walls, I noticed the other people in the room. At the center of the room sat a set of benches, filled today – as I’m sure they are filled, every day – with people experiencing this art. I was surrounded by people who spoke different languages, who had different styles, who interacted in different ways.
I was struck by a young family on one end. Strapped to the man’s chest was a baby, not more than two months old, curled and asleep. The father adjusted and soothed her when she cried out; his wife looked at them and smiled. The baby’s feet, covered in a print of colorful animals, rested upon her father’s belly; he placed his hand on her back, and rocked her.
What came to my mind was something Van Gogh apparently once said:
The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
What a powerful thought, coming from someone who was a genius with his paintings, just as Monet was a genius with his Nymphéas.
Paris is alive in so many ways, and these pieces of the city – art and love – are two of the most paramount (along with food, and wine, and music, and leisure). Art is everywhere: museums, parks, street corners, buildings. And love is everywhere: within grasp for the young and for the old, for those who are French and for those who are not.
The parents brought their infant to the museum knowing she could not possibly understand any of the art. Maybe they wanted a day out. Maybe they came in on a whim. Maybe they weren’t concerned with anything other than whether or not she would stay quiet. Whatever the reason for their trip to the museum, I like to imagine that the baby was still infused with its energy, with the magic that comes from bearing witness to the fact that art comes in part from thinking that something is possible, though no one has ever done that one thing before.
I do not have children, but I imagine that there’s a parallel here. This sleeping infant, living and breathing upon her father, once existed only in her parents’ imagination. For them, she may well be the embodiment of love, and the realization of what they only thought might be possible. Maybe one day they will stand back and see her, so different than what they imagined, so fully her own person, and wonder at the strange miracle of it all. Monet might have done the same with his paintings.
I think about the artists in my life: the painters who capture the world in a way that I never could, the musicians who sing their poetry with angelic voices, the writers who pen words that capture my curiosity. And I think, too, about the artists in my life who do not call themselves that: the parents who cause their babies’ faces to light up, the friends who go so far beyond what is expected of them, and all of the people who love others well. I am humbled by each of them, by their genius, by the way they mark the world as their own.
Life, love, art, and possibility: these notions challenge every last one of us. For what it’s worth, today I felt awed by what we can each accomplish, by what dreams we carry, and by how very much that makes each of us who we are. I may not know much about art, but I’m amazed when it stands up before me, determined to show me something entirely, and beautifully, new.
I think that we create something – maybe many things – every day, and thrive in the possibility of what may someday come of it, even when it is hard to see the end result. Perhaps we are just standing too close to get a clear picture of it all. If we stepped back a little bit, maybe we would discover that, in fact, we had created a masterpiece, more lasting and important than even our imaginations can imagine.