The Foreign and the Familiar

It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church. The spare, sweeping space of the galleries, the click of heels across marble and wood, the sound of parents shushing children into silence and the sight of impassive, stolid guards lined up along the walls like ushers felt familiar, even if the painting and sculpture did not.

I was young and slightly timid, well-educated but inexperienced in the arts.  With an eye still incapable of discerning distinctions and little appreciation for technique, my first experience of a “real” art museum felt like a visit to a foreign country.  I might as well have been in Tanganyika, a country that still existed the year I found myself plucked from my familiar, everyday world and transported to the National Gallery of Art.

Previously, my museum-going had been confined to the Des Moines Art Center.  Building additions, including one designed by I.M. Pei, have changed its appearance over the years and expanded the space available for exhibits, but in its original incarnation it was positively cozy. With creamy stone facades, immaculate lawns and lush trees, it could have been any upper-middle class home in any upper-middle class Iowa neighborhood. It was as familiar as the neighborhood playground or the Dairy Queen, and as comfortable. It played to its audience, and did it well.

A February, 2011 review of the gallery by Iowa Girl On the Go confirms my memories:

Here’s the great thing about the Des Moines Art Center: It’s not a huge commitment. For one thing, admission is free. And you can easily view all of the museum’s holdings in an hour.

If you’re not from the midwest, that could sound like denigration, even criticism, but it isn’t. Translated, that bit of midwestern-speak means, “This place is accessible. You don’t have to be intimidated. You’re not going to be overwhelmed here or made to feel like a fool, and you might even like some of the art.”

Certainly the National Gallery appeared at first glance to be less accessible and far more intimidating anything Iowa had to offer.  Meandering through the galleries, my vision clouded by my own inexperience and anxieties, I found the Titians and Rubens overblown, the piles-of-fruit-on-a-plate boring, the statuary cold and lifeless. I dismissed the portraits out of hand, finding them stiff and formal, and even the few “important” paintings I recognized, such as Raphael’s Alba Madonna, did little to assuage my sense of discomfort.

Like anyone who travels too far, too fast, I felt out of place and hungry for a taste of home.  Little wonder, then, that a sudden glimpse of a beribboned tutu and toe shoes was enough to pull me across a gallery and through a door, compelled by a vision of a girl who might have stepped out of my own ballet class.

Purely by chance, I had found the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, that marvelous collection of light-conjurers whose ability to transform the mundane into the miraculous is unequalled. I knew few of the artists’ names and even less of their lives or artistic convictions, but I felt at home among them immediately. I had struggled in the studio with Renoir’s Dancer.  I had my own experience of train whistles and steam, and the longing to be gone.

The familiar routines of daily life so beautifully captured in paintings like Edgar Degas’ Woman Ironing were the perfect foil for Edouard Manet’s Plum Brandy, with its  undertones of escape to the foreign and exotic. Awash in color and light, the canvases fairly glowed. By the end of the day, my only wish was for another day to explore the marvelous collection – a wish with no time to be granted.

Forty-seven years later, I had my second opportunity to view the National Gallery’s Impressionist collection. This time, they came to me in the form of a marvelously curated exhibit at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Many favorites from my visit to the National Gallery were there, including my dancer, Manet’s Railway, the woman at her chores and the dreamy café dweller who seemed to epitomize freedom and sophistication.

On the other hand, paintings which never had appealed in the past, paintings which might as well have been invisible, had with the passage of time and  accumulation of experience been made visible and appealing.  

As Anais Nin so nicely puts it, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Decades ago, I saw the National Gallery exhibits as I was – young, overwhelmed and more than ready to worship at the altar of the familiar and comfortable.  Today, more appreciative of technique, I can study the pointillists with curiosity and awe.

More confident in my abilities and less tentative in my opinions, I enjoy boldness in my colors, and the portrayal of worlds I’ve yet to explore.

Over the years, an increasing commitment to simplicity in life and an appreciation for the importance of detail have led to a deepened appreciation for the same “piles-of-fruit-on-a-plate” that once seemed unutterably boring.

And a broader knowledge of the artists themselves has made it possible to move beyond stereotype.  Toulouse-Lautrec was more than the Moulin Rouge, and Paul Gauguin was his Breton girls as surely as his more well-known Tahitians.

Best of all,  there are surprises to be had when an artist dares to move beyond the familiar. Mary Cassatt, best known for her tender portrayals of mothers and children, was said to be impulsive at times, willing to drag others into her creative process.  As the Houston exhibit catalogue notes rather primly, 

“Although Cassatt often used members of her family as models for her scenes of daily life, she was also known to use friends and neighbors who were never identified, such as the girl in “Child in a Straw Hat”.

Seen in a gallery, the portrait is stunning.  Drawn by circumstance into a world not of her choosing, the girl stands before us, evaluating her situation. Her tousled hair, ruddy cheeks and plain pinafore suggest she may have been playing outdoors before being called in and forced to pose in a hat clearly too large to be her own.  The protruding lip and puffy eyes suggest tears, but her expression is measured and direct. She seems less petulant than pensive, frustrated and bored by this immersion into an adult world as foreign to her as Tanganyika would be to us.

As with any portrait, questions abound. Most of them never will be answered, but this much is certain.  A little girl whose essence was captured over a century ago stands before us today as familiar as our own children – her expression perfectly readable, her emotions made clear with only a few strokes of the brush. In her image, the foreign and the familiar have been perfectly joined.

It is, as they say, the power of art.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

55 thoughts on “The Foreign and the Familiar

  1. The perspective of living life makes us appreciate all art differently, more fully. We definitely see (and hear and read) things as we are, bringing our unique understanding and perspective. That’s what makes art such a marvelous gift.

    I love the selections you’ve chosen here. I enjoy portraits for the very reason you described – the essence of a person is captured for one moment in time and kept for all eternity.


    1. Becca,

      And isn’t that precisely the reason a book that’s been hidden on our shelf for years suddenly “speaks”, or music that’s never appealed begins to touch our soul?

      It certainly is one reason I love “real” books, and re-read many of them multiple times. I’m a margin-scribbler, and it’s fascinating to read those scribblings over a period of years. As we change, our response to the “same words” changes as well.

      As for portraits – what you say is true whether the portrait is done in oils or pixels. There’s a fascinating article in the September 26 “New Yorker” about the process photographer Thomas Struth engaged in after agreeing to photograph Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh for the commemoration of her Diamond Jubilee. “Capturing the essence” is what he was about.


    1. belleofthecarnival,

      I still remember my 5th grade art teacher saying to us, “Art is just a different way of seeing”. Children can be so literal, so given to the “but it doesn’t LOOK like a dog!” point of view. If we’re lucky, we grow up, we learn, and we have people like that teacher, who help us to see. ;)

      Glad you enjoyed the post – it was a wonderful period, for sure.


        1. Steve,

          What a wonderful post – thank you for alerting me to it. There was much wisdom there for me, too – there are truths about the creative process that apply across disciplines.

          I’ll be passing Leslie’s post on to some grandparents I know, especially those who are active in the arts.


  2. It’s almost an unavoidable frustration to go to an art museum with other people—especially if you go with a group. How do you keep moving past all that art? It’s like listening to only a medley of great songs.

    I love the way you see yourself growing in art appreciation and your descriptions of how the art you’ve included in the post have touched you. I admit a shortcoming in my ability to appreciate the visual arts. Once I was in a very small museum, admiring a piece of modern art. I really liked the piece—I find myself most attracted to more non-traditional work. As I had moved onto another display, I overheard a young woman describing to an older gentleman what she saw in the piece I liked. Without invading their space, I looked at the piece again from my standpoint while eavesdropping on what the woman was saying. Wow! All the things I had missed were so obvious then.

    I think that’s what I enjoy about art. There’s so much more.

    1. Claudia,

      I think you’ve put your finger on something important when you say, “There’s so much more”. I’ve heard the phrase “a surplus of meaning” applied to poetry, and it surely applies to art, too. Every time we think we have the “meaning” pinned down, we discover the poem or the painting has escaped us again. In a world that seems determined to cram every living bit of human experience into a box and slam shut the lid, that’s important.

      And don’t ever forget – if you had shared what you saw in that painting with the other young woman, she might have been equally amazed by your interpretation.

      Like you, I’m not especially fond of museum tours, although I’ll take one occasionally. But if I want someone to tell me “about” the paintings, I can just as easily buy a catalogue and read it at home. If I want to “be encountered by the painting” (as one of my professors once said) I’ll take that time and space alone, thank you very much.


  3. Now, how did I miss that you were from Iowa? (I am also from the Midwest and spent several interesting years in Iowa.)

    I know what you mean about the Iowa Girl on the Go quotation: I grew up right outside “big city” Chicago, so my first museum excursion was to the Art Institute, on assignment from my high school art history class. While the Art Institute was rather bigger than Des Moines’ Museum, we were assigned to choose a room, and thank goodness for that.

    The room I chose was, as I now recall it, at the heart of the section given over to Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: there I “discovered” Monet, Seurat, van Gogh, Cassatt, Renoir, Gaughin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Henri Rousseau. It became my anchor for all subsequent trips to the museum—though perhaps also a bit of a trap, as I felt so comfortable there with my new “old friends,” I rarely strayed beyond them. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to go back someday and see, as you did, those “paintings which might as well have been invisible.” Thanks for yet another beautiful and thought-provoking post—and for stopping by the La Brea tar pits (I loved that!) to deposit the most gorgeous bit of description from Durrell.

    1. Susan,

      When I think of the Chicago Art Institute, the only name that comes to mind is Georgia O’Keeffe – it’s where I first saw her work, and I was so astonished by “Sky Above Clouds” I never got over it. If you’ve not read Joan Didion’s essay about O’Keefe in “The White Album”, I think you’d enjoy it.

      I do understand the reluctance to stray. I’m particularly susceptible in restaurants. Having enjoyed a particular dish, I’m likely to order it the next time, and the next, and… Yet, when I break free and try something new, I’m generally pleased. Funny creatures we are.

      On the other hand, I often think of Annie Dillard’s riff on the two ways of exploring: we can go far, or we can go deep. Moving on from one place to another is stimulating, but learning to know one good place in all its seasons is a different sort of experience. Perhaps we stay with certain genres of literature or styles of painting not because we are fearful of the new – or lazy! – but rather because we sense that we still have something to learn from the old.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and the Durrell!


      1. So many wonderful things for me to explore coming out of your response. I’ve marked Didion (though I am developing such a long list–Durrell included–I do wonder how I will get to it all). Also, I looked up Sky Above Clouds. I have some recollection of it, but don’t think I’ve seen it “live,” which I hope I can do. For here is what the Art Institute says (though you probably know this already): “O’Keeffe worked almost until the very end of her long life. In her 70s, she took her first trip by airplane. From 30,000 feet, she was inspired by the extraordinary view of the clouds below her and later produced Sky Above Clouds IV, the largest painting of her career. To make the work, she stretched the huge canvas across the outside of her garage, painting from dawn until the last light of the sun dimmed at night. To reach the top of the canvas, she climbed a ladder and for each of the lower levels, she stood or sat on a special platform: a table, a box, a small Mexican chair, and finally, the floor.” Just from that description, it’s no wonder it made such an impression.

  4. What I know about art would fit on the tip of a pin with room to spare, but I, too, love the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauves. I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day, and came at the galleries of European art differently than I had before, and so wandered chronologically in search of my favorites. It was a life-changing experience, because I finally truly saw just how much light Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, etc. had let in. The power of art, indeed.

    Now I appreciate the older interiors and “piles of fruit” more, but my heart will always belong to Vincent and Mary, Claude, the Pauls, and Henri (Matisse). Anais Nin was right.

    Thank you for this.

    1. ds,

      I suppose I’ll let you get away with saying you don’t “know much about art”, if you’ll let me remind you that love is another way of knowing. ;-) After all, knowing Renoir’s birth date or that Pissarro preferred a palette knife isn’t going to change anyone’s life. (Or so I presume.) Wandering through a gallery, letting the light of art touch our souls certainly can.

      And both things are important – the wandering, and the galleries. The wandering allows for discovery, while the gallery setting gives us the ability to truly see the brush strokes, the thickness of the paint, the pressure of the human hand in the act of creation. That part of the experience simply can’t be replicated or purchased in a gallery shop.

      And can you imagine – in the process of writing this post, I discovered that one of my favorite paintings, Edward Hopper’s “Automat” is in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center. It was touring a couple of years ago with a Hopper retrospective, but if it’s back home, you can bet that I’ll be making a slight detour to see it next week on my trip to Iowa!


  5. Unbeknownst to you, Linda, you have detailed here (again so brilliantly!) some of my own journey with art galleries and museums. Astrid and I are both the same in that we prefer to be in the outdoors’ museums wherever we travel, totally side-stepping the ones inside. I’m not sure where this comes from or why, because I have been inside some of the greatest galleries of the world and have been enthralled each time. But when left to my own choice, they are often last on my list of things to see. I want to explore this a bit to see if I can figure it out….

    In the meantime, your own journey gives me pause. Thank you.

    1. Ginnie,

      I’m smiling because it seems so clear to me. In a gallery, you’re looking at how someone else saw the world. When you’re behind the camera, you’re saying “This is how I see the world”. You’re such a great photographer, and your creativity just overflows – I can imagine you’d rather be making your images than looking at someone else’s – which is not to say you don’t appreciate other’s photography or art. Clearly, you do.

      When I got rid of the television, one of my friends was appalled. “How can you DO that?”, she said. I explained to her that, from my perspective, any walk through the neighborhood beats any tv program, hands down. Of course there is good programming. Of course there are things worth seeing. Certainly, it’s a great way to sit back and unwind after a hard day. It’s just not my way. ;-)

      Personal preferences are just that – preferences, not demands that others see things our way. Getting comfortable with our preferences and being willing to stand by the judgements they imply is quite a journey in itself.

      When I visited the Impressionists exhibit in Houston, I came upon a collection of roses in a vase that I thought so ghastly I didn’t even walk over to see who’d painted it. It was done in shades of green that recalled cheap after-dinner mints, and the flowers looked (to me) as though the artist wasn’t certain which direction he wanted to go.

      Imagine my surprise when I looked at the gallery brochure later in the day and discovered the same painting on the cover. It was Van Gogh’s Roses. I still wouldn’t hang it in the living room. Aren’t I a Philistine? ;-)


  6. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I’d never been a fan of art. I’d doodled my way through many of my classes (when I wasn’t writing), but wasn’t remotely interested in other peoples’ non-wordy artistic endeavors.

    When I moved to Los Angeles a month or so before my first year of law school, I had very little money. I was close to LACMA, though, and it was “only” an hour or so to walk there from my apartment.

    I was enthralled. I wondered at how much was lost between seeing art in living color, instead of on the pages of the book.

    I became a member, and I loved taking visitors there to see exhibits. I was able to introduce a few other “don’t-get-it” folks to the marvel of seeing it live. I don’t know how they feel now, but I do know I’m able to appreciate photos of art now in a way I didn’t before.

    I can’t wait for Li’l D’s first museum trip! It might be soon, actually, with a Tim Burton exhibit up until Halloween (or so)!

    1. Deborah,

      Oh, my gosh! I’ve never heard of Tim Burton, but now I’ve been to the website, clicking away and enjoying it tremendously. His work reminds me of one of my real favorites – Edward Gorey. So thanks for the introduction!

      Your comments about the difference between seeing art in real life, as opposed to in the pages of a book, are so on target. One of the things I’ve done over the past couple of years is regularly read a few blogs maintained by working artists. I’ve learned so much about technique and process from them. I’m sure that’s part of what helped me see some of these paintings in a new way.

      And just as you say – once you’ve seen the real thing, the books become richer, filled with experience as well as images. I can’t wait for Li’l D to start gaining that experience, too!


      1. Just rereading this comment fills me with the thrill of exposing him to the world’s wonders! This morning I took him for his two-year check-up, in which his doctor encouraged me to keep challenging him and expanding the borders of his world. One thing that will be neat about taking him early is, I think, being able to compare the “your first trip at two!” with later trips. Even if he doesn’t remember those earliest trips, I will. Even imagining it is a joy!

        1. I’ve got a friend who’s been taking her grandchildren to local zoos, butterfly gardens and such from a very young age – and documenting it all for us in photos. One of her grandsons just got brave enough to feed the lorikeets for the first time – he might be three? Anyway – it’s clear that even the youngest ones can enjoy having their worlds expanded!

  7. I feel like I’ve had a brief visit to the museum this morning and it’s been delightful. The girl at the end does have a look that cannot be hidden from interpretation just as you’ve so aptly said…”a world not of her choosing”.

    1. maggie,

      I found the girl in the straw hat very nearly at the end of my wander through the galleries. I was absolutely taken with her, and barely could pull myself away. Since then, I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate her into a post, and this was the result.

      I suspect each of us has spent time in worlds not of our choosing – it’s part of what makes her so appealing, and her expression so recognizable.


  8. Well, first of all, I love every image you selected! I’m so darned fond of Impressionists myself, you must admit, I have a bias! But that last of the girl in the straw hat — I’ve never seen that and oh, now I must! It is a treasure — I feel as though I knew exactly what she was thinking! (And it wasn’t very cheery!)

    More to the point, though, you bring up something I find critically important — the willingness to revisit what may (or may not) have been something we enjoyed (or not) in the past. We see, as Nin pointed out and you exemplified, different things when we view through the lens of time. Even though the style appealed to you as a youth, as a wiser woman you see so very much more!

    I find it akin to liking brussels sprouts, eggplant and sweet potatoes now — veggies I detested throughout youth! When I discovered them as an adult, they were fresh, new, and I had a different eye and palate. The same can be said of art, and I simply love everything about this post.

    Often our eyes seem to find what we look for. As I noted in my current post about my amazing discovery at the antiquarian book fair, I was looking for something specific, and yet what I found was so unexpected and glorious, it took me to new places. I see some connections here, as well. Looks where you were taken!

    1. jeanie,

      I’d never seen that straw-hatted child, either. I wonder now how that could be – if you do an online search, her image is on everything from mousepads to tote bags. I confess I find some of Cassatt’s work a tiny bit sentimental – but there’s not a lick of sentimentality in that young miss!

      I thought a good bit about familiarity and comfort when I was writing this. The paintings that appealed so many years ago were the ones that reminded me of my home, my life. They functioned like comfort food for the eye. I think as we grow older, more comfortable in our own skins, it’s easier for us to search out and enjoy the unfamiliar – foods, music, cultural traditions, art.

      Your experience at the book fair is a wonderful reminder of something else I’ve learned – heading off into the world with an attitude of “let’s go see what we can see” is enormously freeing. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our searches – if we focus too narrowly, we may miss them!


  9. Unlike DS, what I know about art really WOULD fit on the head of a pin. I don’t know Manet from Monet (well, except for water lilies – duh!).

    I live near and have worked IN Cincinnati for the last 14 years and I’ve only been to the art museum ONCE. When I went I swore I would go back once a month. Seeing the art in person was so fascinating.

    OK, I’m going to add it to the list of things to do. They used to have certain Saturdays that were free. I’m going to check it out again!

    1. Bug,

      Well, you’re certainly ahead of me – I live right across the lake from the Johnson Space Center, and never have taken the tour. It’s not a point of pride, for sure. But I think when museums and such are so close at hand, it’s easy to say, “I can do that any time I want”, and then not do it.

      There’s one thing you might not have thought of – these museums have their collections online now, or at least a portion of them. I just browsed through the Cincinnati museum, and found a few paintings I’d love to see in “real life”. Going online before going to the museum is a wonderful way to choose a focus for the day, or learn about exhibits.

      Not only that, lookie here:

      Your general admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is free every day, made possible by a generous gift from The Richard and Lois Rosenthal Foundation.

      Saturday’s free admission is made possible by The Thomas J. Emery Free Day Endowment established by Mary Emery in 1906.

      Parking’s just four bucks – what a deal!


  10. Congratulations on a wonderful post, and great photos, Linda! I work in an art museum in L.A. and write about my “people adventures” behind the cash register. I love how you shared your growth in art appreciation, and the descriptions of the art that touched you. I particularly like the Mary Cassatt painting of the little girl.

    In our museum we have a Turner watercolor of a castle painted in 1795, but the paint’s so fresh, it could’ve been painted last week. I don’t know why I feel humbled every time I see it. My heart seems to beat faster, and I’m always excited to speak to tourists who’ve actually been to the castle. It’s still there on the hill in Wales, and apparently looks almost the same, except for the railway bridge. The power of art!

    You’ve inspired me to write something on the art in our museum. Thank you :-)
    As you said to Claudia, “There’s so much more” we can learn from art and poetry.

    1. dearrosie,

      I’d love to read about “your” art. I think you would write about it wonderfully, too – what you said about the Turner makes it clear you connect to the beauty around you.

      There’s something else about that Turner – imagine a painting from 1795! It amazes me to think of the dedication of the people responsible for preserving these treasures, so that we can continue to be humbled and touched by them.

      One of the best stories I’ve heard about a museum employee concerned a fellow who was a guard at the Minneapolis Museum of Art. He was older – maybe 65? 70? – and as I recall, he worked nights. Night after night, it was just him and the art, until one day he said, “I need a change. I don’t want to look at art, I want to make art.” And he did. He quit his museum job, started painting, ended up in a gallery and started selling his work to collectors.

      Who knows how art can change us, if we hang around with it long enough? :-)


      1. Linda I hadn’t heard the story about the museum guard at the Minneapolis Museum of Art. Wow its inspiring!

        and I’d also like to thank you and Susan Scheid for the interesting discussion on “Sky Above Clouds” by Georgia O’Keeffe. Although I’ve been to the Art Institute I hadnt seen the painting.
        My word she was an amazing woman. I don’t think many women in their 70’s would stand on a ladder outside the garage to paint.

  11. Ah, art saves us, reminds us, opens us up and joins us. I love the last Cassat you included here. Geez. I don’t know this one. But how singularly universal. And refreshing.

    Museums should likely have another name. The word museum sounds archaic and outdated. When indeed they are the opposite. As you show here.

    I’m thinking I need a walk around the STL Art Museum. You’d love this one, too. There are all kinds of rococco works there and the ancients (as in Egypt) but we have some impressionists, some moderns, my beloved Picasso and much much more, including Monet, whose water lilies fill a wall and his special exhibit opened yesterday and goes thru Jan 22, just in case you are coming this way.

    Thanks, Linda. You have me focusing on more important things than how much work I need to get done this evening! Art is true.

    1. oh,

      Personally, I’m in favor of keeping the perfectly good word “museum” and reinvigorating it. There has to be a place where tradition trumps timelines, after all. ;-) Besides, there’s a “muse” in museum – where else can we go to wander and muse over everything from the role of beauty in our lives to our connection with a little straw-hatted girl from the late 1800s?

      I need to get to Houston’s museums more often than I do. When I lived inside the loop, I visited frequently. Now, with a 45 minute drive to get there, I’m not so impulsive. Still, I never regret a visit. I have tickets for the King Tut exhibit already – that’s for November. And the Rothko Chapel is hosting an exhibit of icons. I surely won’t miss that.

      We’re surrounded by so much richness – we need to partake!


  12. Still playing catchup. Perhaps later I’ll have time to go back and read the two dozen comments that appear above mine. I hope I don’t inadvertently reproduce one of them here.

    I was looking at Gauguin’s Breton girls — thinking about wooden shoes, how they would make you walk, the inimical character of a landscape that would make clunky inflexible wooden shoes seem like a good idea, and saboteurs all in willy-nilly stream of consciousness fashion — when I noticed the little dog. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, because it was such a small dog. I had to squint and move closer to the screen. Then I began to chafe at the nature of the medium, which constrains all your art to the width of a column, a few hundred pixels. Forsooth, behind this narrow strait I have several lateral inches of vacant screen real estate available for expansion.

    Ah. Just now I figured out that I can click through to the NGA site and see the original full size JPEG…

    …which is all of 497 pixels wide. Sigh. Art appreciation on a small scale. Well, your little gallery is certainly worth the price of admission. :o)

    1. Bogon,

      Funny you noticed the wooden shoes. On my upcoming trip, one of my stops will be Pella, Iowa, where I got my first pair of wooden shoes. The town’s just about 30 miles or so from my home town, and we often went over for the tulip festivals and other events. Well, and the bakeries. As far as I’m concerned, no trip to Iowa is complete without some “Dutch Letters” – a wonderful, almond paste-filled delight. If you visit at the right time, you can eat them while watching something like this:

      As for the images… Well, think of their small size as a visual appetizer. Just like crudités and bite-sized shrimp rolls, they’re meant to stimulate your appetite for the main course! ;-)


      1. Consider my appetite whetted.

        Art appreciation is largely subjective. I enjoyed contrasting your reactions to these paintings with my own. Thanks for sharing.

        Alas, I never owned a pair of wooden shoes, so I really don’t know what I’m missing. I imagine that the sabot confers effective immunity to painful mashed or stubbed toes. Probably not the best thing for chasing drop shots on the tennis court. Insufficient data for evaluating relative risk of corns, bunions, athlete’s foot etc.

        Anyhow, bon voyage! May you find everything you desire on the road, including your way home again.

        1. I do think those wooden shoes would have to be pretty carefully custom-fitted. As I recall, there were two little strips of foam that went across the top of my foot when I wore mine, and it wasn’t for decoration!

          I wasn’t very graceful in them, either. They’re called “klompen”, and I did tend to “klomp around” a bit!

  13. Linda,
    What a beautiful post. It’s been years since I’ve visited the Hirshhorn or the National Gallery of Art. It is true that experience allows us to appreciate things we never “saw” before. That includes art, food, seasons, fashion, nature, literature and countless other things. Again, thank you for a beautiful post.

    1. Bella,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’m on my way up to Iowa to put Mom to rest. It’s going to be very interesting to see things there with older – and maybe wiser – eyes. Sometimes we even see our own history differently!


  14. Hello Linda,

    What a delightful surprise to go to your WU blog and find a new wordpress story to read!

    For someone who would like to be considered an “artist” I have very little formal training in the “arts”.
    It is still on my “things to learn” list.. but I do love visiting art galleries and art shows.

    I know what I like when I see it and I really liked your story!


    1. Patti,

      I’m smiling away. My days of thinking I “must” like something because “everyone” says it’s likable are over. Granted, I can appreciate the work of an artist – understand where it fits in art history, how it impacted other artists, and what new techniques it employed – without wanting to hang it on my living room wall.

      The way I see it, life’s too short to spend it with art you think is ugly – no matter how much you’re willing to give it its due. ;) I guess I’m just getting cantankerous in my old age!

      I’m glad you liked the story, though. I thought about you while I was putting it together. You would have enjoyed the exhibit!


  15. Your post has triggered this thought in me… when we look at natural beauty, e.g. a sunset, we don’t need to know much about the scientific facts behind the phenomenon in order to appreciate it. But with art, we have to know something about it first, or, have reached a certain ‘maturity’, before we can enjoy it.

    Does this point to the notion of ‘common grace’… that we’re endowed with the capacity to appreciate natural beauty, but for ‘man-made’ ones, we need to learn before we can enjoy it? This is how thought-provoking your posts are. :)

    1. Arti,

      I’m not sure about that. When I was a child, for example, I loved the stars. I thought they were beautiful, and I enjoyed seeing the familiar constellations move across the sky. As I grew older and learned more about astronomy, my appreciation for their beauty deepened. Sometimes I saw them as just “pretty”, and sometimes I thought about them in other ways.

      Conversely, I responded on a purely visceral level to the girl in the straw hat before I even knew who’d painted her. I saw her across the gallery and was drawn to her purely on the basis of the beauty of the canvas and the expression on her face, which isn’t really conveyed well here.

      Joan Didion tells the story of going to the Chicago Art Institute with her daughter. The girl saw O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds” and said, “Who painted that? I need to talk to her.” Clearly, she responded to the painting in the same way we respond to mountains, or beautiful clouds, or the first sight of the sea.

      Which is to say – I think there are different ways of seeing, and there are inherently beautiful sights. Whether they’re natural or man-made doesn’t seem to me to be as important to me as how sensitive we are to their existence.

      Interesting – I’ll need to think about this more!


  16. Whenever I go to the art museum, I feel strangely moved whenever I see a parent leading his or her child through its hallowed halls. How right-thinking, how proper of the parent – and how lucky that child is.

    I’ve had years of studio art and art history classes, and if nothing else they have taught me to Know What I Like and to leave me no shame whatsoever when it comes to voicing my artistic opinions. Perhaps one doesn’t need a professor to point out the marvelous patch of golden light in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’…but it is a lovely thing, and I shudder to think I would miss it!

    I love to write about works of art, trying not to be pulled down by ‘facts’ – rather preferring to create little ‘portraits of empathy’. Your beautiful post brought all these thoughts out – it does indeed possess the power of art!

    1. Aubrey,

      I agree with you about the powerful effect of seeing parents and children together at a museum. A special delight at this exhibit was the number of French-speaking families who had come. It’s perfectly understandable, given the exhibit, and yet I hadn’t anticipated it. Just delightful.

      Because I’ve been on the road a few days, I can’t help but think of the professors in terms of “locals”. You can be as open as you’re able to a new landscape, but inevitably you’re going to miss something. I nearly missed history-rich Council Grove, Kansas, but once I got there, some local folks who had devoted their lives to learning about and communicating the history of the place enriched my experience immeasurably.

      They were able to point to the details that an uninformed “eye” might have missed – just like a good museum guide or teacher!

      Your use of the phrase “portraits of empathy” reminded me of Neptune and the Shell House – a perfect example of what you do so well!


    1. Andrew,

      In the midst of all my traveling and such, I missed your comment here. I’m glad you enjoyed the artwork.

      Your love of galleries is clear in your photographs. Some of your photos taken in them – especially of people looking at the art – are so nice. There’s a kind of communication that can take place between a piece of art and a viewer. Your gift is to capture that!


  17. As I read this post, I recognized in myself the same growth process you describe. At some point in my life, I would have become impatient and bored of the story you tell, and the images you’ve selected. But now I relish every word and study every reference.

    You said it perfectly with this: “Like anyone who travels too far, too fast, I felt out of place and hungry for a taste of home.” And you’ve reminded me that one of the advantages of having lived a few decades is the ability to be comfortable with the unfamiliar — and to even appreciate it.

    1. bronxboy,

      My goodness – after what you’ve been through, I’d think you’d be off eating pie and ice cream, or watching bad tv, or playing kickball, not reading another blog! But I appreciate it – and I appreciate the way you’ve dealt with your just-slightly-ambiguous good fortune. My impulse would have been to approach it as you did, but I’m not sure I’d do as well.

      I’m coming to the place in life where I hear the grandparently phrase, “When you’ve lived as long as I have…” rather differently. There is something about age and experience that can enlarge our vision and make us more comfortable in our own skins, more accepting of “the other”.

      Today I think to myself that boredom’s nothing but the other side of insensitivity and fear of the unfamiliar? Just a child’s fear of the shadows, while missing the light. This growing up business isn’t so bad, after all.


  18. I believe much impressionist art can only be fully appreciated when the viewer has also experienced similar scenes as those which inspired the painter.

    Wouldn’t it be less confusing if one used either the term of art gallery or museum to differentiate housed exhibits?

    Are the pictures on the border of your pages those of D L Goines? They are of similar style to that of my great uncle, Georg Rueter 1875-1966. Also well known (in Amsterdam, Holland) as a portrait and still life painter, designer of stained glass and much more. I have two paintings of his, one a still life, but the other a portrait of a small boy. Discovered a photograph of my father (circa 1923) which is definitely the subject of that painting; a true treasure to be kept.

    Enjoying your blogs.

    1. Rick,

      Your comment about the relationship of life experience to the appreciation of the Impressionists reminded me of another post – “Claude Monet ~ Alive and Well in Mississippi”. It seems to be a reciprocal relationship – experience influences our appreciation of art, while art influences our vision of the world.

      The little page illustrations actually are snippets of detail from the work of Alphonse Mucha. My avatar is from his “Poetry” – a series of the Muses. Originally I used a larger version of “Poetry” as a header image for each post. After a few months I realized that wasn’t a good idea, but I kept the images along the side.

      It’s time for me to do some “blog-cleaning”, and one thing I need to do is provide attribution for those little images. It just never had occurred to me. Of course, when I began putting the blog together, I still was trying to adopt certain other habits, like closing html tags.
      It’s beginning to look like 2012 will become the Year of the Blog.

      I haven’t the time just now to explore the work of your great-uncle, but I’ll do that this evening. How wonderful that you have both the photograph and the painting – a rare treasure, indeed.


      1. Linda,

        Thanks for the link to Claude Monet; I’ve always enjoyed his work. (Haven’t yet explored that far back through your writings; they all take time to read, and to contemplate all the levels of meaning which I find.) Can you just imagine what he would have painted had he visited Cathedral Grove?

        Other favourites include the Group of Seven, and having visited many of the areas painted, the images become very powerful. It also helps to have seen many of the original paintings.

        If you do find a good link to Georg, please share it with me; I haven’t yet found an adequate site. My best source to date is a book about him published by Teylers Museum, Haarlem (only problem is it’s entirely in Dutch which is a real struggle for me.) Your searches will probably discover Gustav, names of both my grandfather (cabinet maker) and an uncle (type setter), and Willem, a cousin, also a type setter.


        1. Rick,

          I found the book – not to mention what may be other familial connections, such as this fellow who married a daughter of Georg. The information is in the third paragraph.

          There are several photographs of his work on Flickr, too, but there does seem to be a paucity of English-language resources. I have some friends who live in the Netherlands. I’ll make inquiry with them. One of them is a formally-trained artist and cabinet-maker. It would be interesting if she’d heard of your grandfather, or even Georg.

          Now, let’s see… What were we saying about gunk-holing?


  19. Thank you for directing me here. When I read your first line (“It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church.”) I was conflicted and reminded of my “task at hand.” How I wanted to read this right away, but then I was reminded I had to interrupt our comment conversation this morning to go prepare the altar of which I’m charged for second service at my church.

    So, I’m back and must say I thoroughly enjoyed coming back to where we left off. You write so eloquently and calmly, despite the years of separation, to produce this wonderful synthesis of reflection. How wonderful you returned to these pieces. Something stayed and wisdom assured you, returning would be different and make a difference. I think I will return to this again to appreciate how wonderfully you captured not only the initial encounter, the initiation to fine art and the return experience.

    Often I am envious of my cousin who earned a doctorate in Art History and now teaches at a southern CA university. However, I am also very glad I chose my own path. My life has been enriched by these visits to museums and conversations with individuals such as you. Thank you for the conversation.

    1. Georgette,

      Isn’t it easy to be envious of others? I often wish I could play guitar well, or still was involved in musical groups. But I’m the one who made the decision to stop practicing, to sell my clarinet, to move on to other things. It’s a hard lesson but true – we can’t do everything in life, at least not well enough to satisfy ourselves and delight others.

      But every artist needs a viewer, every composer a listener – and every writer a reader, for all that. One of the very clear objectives of my schooling was to give each of us a basis for appreciating the arts. Even the boys on a technical track, or the girls who preferred to prepare for careers as homemakers, were expected to take Latin, to parse sentences, to know the difference between a sonnet and a limerick and to understand how to approach a painting. In those days, “liberal education” had nothing to do with partisanship or politics – it implied a broad, open and receptive stance toward the world, a familiarity with much and a willingness to search out more.

      Yes, there were limitations. The arts of writings of Africa, for example, the story-telling of Native Americans and the richness of Asia were little noted. But as the world opened up and exposure to those cultures was more frequent, we discovered the old tools worked just as well.

      I can’t help thinking of Goethe’s advice that we should “hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of [our lives] in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” I think Goethe would approve of blogging, because it’s surely become a tool which helps us do that!


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