Monets in the Rotunda
Your memories of the museum are from your college years: visits and winter work terms when you come from Vermont and stay with the Siegels, your parents’ best friends. You feel valued, part of a family again, especially as a young woman among their three sons, always one of them in the midst of some sixties rebellion. The museum is a favorite destination. You head first to the top floor rotunda around the dome where most of the Monets are hung. There you can stand close to the paintings, examining the brush strokes, the mix of colors. But you can’t step back to see how they compose an object; you’d be in midair, three stories up. Somehow this delights you.
Poppy Field in a Hollow near Giverny
Monet’s fields and trees lure you, the colors soft, even the red of the poppies blended into the green of the grass between them and the blue above. Your childhood was spent among fields and trees and you bask here, the mild air molded around you; how the landscape takes you in until there is no separation between you and the world.
The poppies make a broad path to the hollow. The bushes graze there, a bit of red above them speaking to the poppies. And the faintest red glazing the tops of the grass. Trees feather the horizon, signaling the clouds whose color echoes the grass. Look, to the left of the poppies is a triangular patch of white flowers with dark green leaves. Stop there, sit and rest on your way to the top of the ridge.
Field of Poppies near Giverny
This painting looks static to you now, compared to the dip and sweep of the flowers in the hollow. But then, as an easterner living in a landscape of wide trees, the poplars are obelisks, signals to the sky, edged in its blue. One, the most solid stands emphatically in front of a deciduous tree, bare-trunked then branching into the familiar leafed oval. Blue rests in the leaves like shadows cast forward from the mountain. In the foreground the poppies, spreading across the bottom of the canvas: red but also blue and green and yellow. And the blue of sky above, Monet’s lavender diffusing into its clouds.
You wake up in the middle of the night, remembering: of course the Monet paintings feel familiar; until your recent cataract operations and corneal implants you had severe astigmatism. When at age eleven you require glasses to read the blackboard at school, you make a startling discovery. You look out your bedroom window with your new glasses on and the world is a Durer etching instead of an Impressionist painting. But in your childhood, adolescence and youth, you seldom wear your glasses except for reading books or blackboards, watching movies and driving. You’re too vain or maybe just self-conscious. And you explain to friends, you can see everything; it’s just blurry. So for the first half of your life you mainly live in a Monet. And for your first eleven years you do not know the world can be different.
Morning on the Seine, near Giverny
Here, Monet paints water along with trees, the reflections in perfect symmetry except the water is water: the ripples in the foreground wavering and further back across the river the lines of white—how does he do it, make crusts of paint so wet, so full of motion? A bush, foreground left, drips feathery, distinct leaves, then a waterfall of blurred leaves. Behind it trees, puffed like clouds hang over the river, pour into the sky. Sky pokes through in a blotch of white and specks of white dot the cascading leaves. The open space of sky and water is a path to one far tree, rectangular, faint, elongated in reflection. A pillar, a monument, an answer.
Fisherman’s Cottage on the Cliffs at Varengeville
How different this is from Morning on the Seine: so open to the sky, wind, sea and afternoon sun. You know it’s afternoon from the chartreuse light on the bushes, the blue shadow in the left foreground, the flare of red flowers. You feel warmth sinking into your skin despite the breeze, the height of the cliff, the ocean. In a landscape like this you are exposed—no hiding here; the sun will find you even in the thick brush around the house: a shelter of stone docked on the edge of the world, closer to sky than sea.
The sea, the wrinkled waves shading gradually from green and blue, blended almost invisibly with pink and lavender. The sailboats, which up close are three swabs of pink and tan paint, sweep across the water when seen from the proper distance, shoved by the wind, sails swollen. They dot the waves, smaller and smaller, to the line of the horizon. And then the sky. What blue sky, despite all the colors Monet mixes to make it. Clouds, so delicate they will never shade the sun, drifting in the same direction as the sailboats, pushed by the same wind we do not see but feel everywhere.
Up close it’s just squiggles of orange and purple paint. How far back do you have to step to see the houses, the wispy trees in the background? Where does earth end and sky begin? Is that dark line horizon or cloud? And what of the huge shaggy structure that dominates the painting, topped by an orange triangle like the houses but so much more solid? Comical, monstrous, almost edible like an enormous cupcake. Why does the ground around it ripple like waves? Why does the sky follow its form with a yellow crown? Where are you?
Grand Canal, Venice
Here Monet tells you where you are. The multicolored water rises into the buildings, met at their tops by the multicolored sky. Are they a mirage, those domes and chimneys, light-struck roofs, and dark slashes of windows? Only the poles in the water are solid, marking an avenue, a way to find, in all that liquid, the ghost of a cross at the end of their path. But no, they are not solid. Step close to the painting; see the purple and blue eroding the brown of the poles, water-logged and swollen.
Who could live here? There are no signs of people, the gondolas—green and casting green ripples on the water—all docked behind the poles in the background. No footing here. The buildings are waterfalls, their domes fat clouds. You’re drowning.
Rouen Cathedral, Facade; and Rouen Facade and Tour d’Albane (Morning Effect)
When is stone not stone? When light plays it like a harpsichord. When it soars, precise and airy as music—Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord, Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark—to sky. The shadows are copper, the Gothic peaks, pillars, and arches crusted with white. The columns piled on top white as icing on a cake. And blue rims everything as though air has carved into the stone. The sky at the top is the purest, flattest blue you’ve ever seen in Monet.
In morning the sky turns gray, the stone fades into mist, the shadows deep blue, the arches and pillars light blue. But in the central peak, a small faint sun, yellow. And the tower to the left so large it looms out of the frame, dominating the sky. But also is sky, paler, less solid than the shadowy facade, a touch of sunlight creeping down its sides.
A Visiting Vermeer: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
Your favorite from the Met is here in Boston. You’re in the museum with Mildred Siegel, your honorary aunt and mother’s best friend. She has a science background, like your parents, and is always interested in information, so has rented the guided tour on headphones. You’ve refused it; you hate such things—still do—and say so emphatically. You want to think your own thoughts. But being twenty, you can’t leave it at that. So when Mildred points out that the guide says the woman’s face is blurred due to Vermeer’s use of the camera oscura, you insist that it’s not.
A month or so later you write a poem about the painting, dedicated to Mildred, with the lines And I/ a face/ serene and blurred…It will be decades before you learn to admit you’re wrong directly.
INTERLUDE: A RECITAL IN BOSTON
On a winter work term from college the Siegels connect you with friends who take you and another young woman to a performance by Artur Rubenstein. You don’t remember the restaurant you go to beforehand, only that it is dark and luxurious, and you are shy as usual. The other young woman is not and you bristle at her talk. She brags about being in Greece and all the men noticing her blond beauty. You decide she’s not beautiful, only blond, and that the world lets blonds think they are pretty when they’re not. This is your way of dealing with the insecurity of your youth. Later you look back aghast at how judgmental you were.
Is it in the restaurant or the symphony hall that you notice the colors flashing in the dark from your borrowed diamond ring? Your roommate Missy lent it to you to wear with your dove gray blouse and gray tweed skirt. (Another judgment: You like the way you look and consider the blond’s blue sleeveless dress dull and conservative.) The ring is large, and you now realize old, with two diamonds in platinum or white gold. Mesmerized by its colors in the low light, you see the value of diamonds, which had never interested you before. You turn your hand to watch it glint red, blue, green.
And what of Rubenstein? You can’t remember what he played, only that the small man so far away fills the hall with sound. The notes pristine, immaculate, a flock of small birds—finches—landing in a field to feed, fluttering in an ever-changing swirl of bodies, wings. Awakening the sky, the building where you sit, the blond forgotten.