An Artistic Awakening

Posted on January 30, 2008. Filed under: Culture, Musings, Spirituality |

I was never a promising young artist when I was a child. I didn’t find myself able to draw a straight line, or mold anything recognizable in clay, or take a non-wobbly photo. In kindergarten class, we all were making butterflies out of pre-glued tissue paper. If we cut out the wings along the lines, the multi-layered tissue would turn into a lovely, ethereal butterfly. I couldn’t stay inside the marked lines, though. My blunt little-kiddie scissors went far and wide on their own journey, and I ended up with a tissue–nest! (Well, the butterflies had to lay their eggs, somewhere, right?)


Because of these experiences, and some others, by the advanced age of 9, I’d written off art as a hobby, let alone a career. And, therefore, I didn’t much want to look at it either.

We had magnificent museums in San Francisco when I was a child. They’re even better, now. I’d go, with my family or sometimes on school field trips, and look at rooms full of stuffy paintings, boring sculpture, and blah, blah, blah.

Then, one day, The Phillips Collection came to town. The Phillips Collection travels quite a bit, but makes its home in Washington, D.C. It was passing through San Francisco on one of its many journeys across the country and the world.

I was twelve years old, in Junior High (or Middle) School, and my Spanish language teacher thought the class ought to go see this collection. My teacher also taught art, but the exhibit really didn’t have much to do with Spanish or Mexican culture. She just felt it was an opportunity not to be missed.

We loaded our pubescent bodies onto a bus, gleeful at the thought of escape from an afternoon of school as usual. I was as pleased as anyone for the reprieve, even though it was to be at a boring museum. It turned out the particular gallery hosting the exhibit was also one of my favorite places to walk and to muse, even at such a young age. The grounds were beautiful, the building unique. After we’d run around the fountain several times whilst shrieking–for no particular reason but the joy of freedom–our teacher managed to get us rounded up, sorted out, and inside.

The teacher was artist enough not to try to “explain” the art to us, nor give us the guided tour with running commentary. We were, extraordinarily enough, allowed to explore the exhibit at our own individual pace, provided that we DID NOT TALK, and that we’d meet in the last room in one hour. Uggh. A whole hour looking at stuffy paintings. Again.

We adorable young students started out together in clumps, but began to drift apart as different works captured different interests. There was surprisingly little whispering and giggling. I soon found myself alone, which was fine with me. I read a plaque telling me that the Phillips Collection contained the finest collection of French Impressionism in the United States. French Impressionism–whatever. I didn’t know French Impressionism from French Fries. Some of the paintings were kind of pretty, I thought. I liked the colors and the soft renderings. Then, it happened.


I found myself in front of a painting. At first, it was a pretty jumble of color like many of the others. I stood and contemplated the good-sized canvas, and…..fell in love. I will forever be grateful that the exhibit was only lightly attended on this day. People walked around me; ignored me; didn’t notice me. I walked up to the painting as close as I could get. (Remarkably, it wasn’t roped off or guarded in any way!) I nearly put my nose into the canvas, I inspected it so closely. I stopped just short of that out of respect for the great work. I then backed up, taking no notice of what, or who, may have been behind me. I made note of the coherent picture that emerged when viewed from a distance. Then, I slowly walked forward again, noticing the change of light and detail the closer I got.

I must have spent 30 minutes, half my allotted time for the entire exhibit, in front of the one painting. I formed a relationship with the painting, one of the more loyal friendships I’ve had. I’d known next to nothing about Impressionism, French or otherwise, when I entered the gallery that day, so I didn’t know that this painting was the most famous of a very famous artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. All I knew at that moment was that the artist, and his brushstrokes, had captured my heart.


Finally awakening from my revere, I reluctantly walked away and through the rest of the exhibit. “Really very nice,” I thought. “I think I like this style”. I began to appreciate the works of Cézanne and Monet I saw in the exhibit. I remembered someone had given me a jigsaw puzzle of Monet’s Water Lilies some time ago, and that I didn’t like to “undo” the jigsaw, as I liked looking at the picture so much.

My love affair with Luncheon of the Boating Party continues to this day. The Phillips Collection is housed still in Washington D.C. There is a good possibility that I will be taking a trip to the East Coast later this year, and I’ve never been to my nation’s capital. In addition to the Smithsonian Institute, guess which location I would most wish to visit when I’m there?

My interest in art has expanded greatly since I was 12, but there’s nothing quite like a first love.

An article about the historical background of the Boating Party:

An article about the creation of the Boating Party:

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12 Responses to “An Artistic Awakening”

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I must admit I chuckled too reading that u have almost put ur nose on the canvas…lolll!! I can imagine…”Luncheon of the Boating Party”has always been one of my favorite paintings of Renoir…just enjoy the interaction between personages..I also have seen Monet’s exhibit and this was quiet impressive…But one Exhibit that is a must to see is, Rodin (sculptor)..I don’t know if u have seen the Camille Claudel’s biography..She was Rodin’s mistress and a very talented sculptor who died incarcerated..It is a very moving story…I still do today enjoy very much the masters’works..

CV, thank you for that. Yes, it was all I could do to hold my nose back! I wanted to climb into the painting. I have not read the Rodin biography, and I appreciate the suggestion. I have Jean Renoir’s bigography of his father; I’ll look forward to the Rodin.

It’s a movie..Don’t know if it has been translated into english though..

CV, thanks for the link! I didn’t realize it was a movie. I looked it up, and it’s available in the US with subtitles.

It’s a very old movie 1988 but still, it is worth watching it…

I love your description of absorbtion as you discovered and explored the Renoir. I agree its a wonderful painting! The only “master” painter I’ve ever seen first-hand is Picasso. I stumbled on an exhibit in Atlanta, GA a few years ago when I was there for a job interview. I was amazed at the richness of the colors and the detail of the brush strokes. Before that experience I never realized how much rich information is lost even in the most well done photographs of paintings. Ever since then I have yearned to see more master works in person. One day I will. :o)

I’ve never seen a masters work in person. At this point I have no great appreciation for them. Perhaps seeing them in person would make all the difference.


Joyfulseeker, thank you. I’ve seen some splendid prints of Renoir and other Impressionists, and in fact I own a couple. But, seeing those dashes of color up-close-and-personal is a spiritual experience! You don’t get the texture from a print, nor do you get, particularly in a work of this kind, how remarkable the painting technique is. When I had my nose in the Renoir, it didn’t resemble anything recognizable–more like a TV test pattern than anything. But backing away slowly and watching it come to life so that the characters nearly stepped off the canvas—Oh my, there’s nothing like it. Wow, you saw a real live Picasso! Must have been amazing! I wish you more opportunities.

Hello Austin, welcome! Thanks for sharing that. I agree, until I had the “Awakening” with the Renoir, I didn’t appreciate art books full of reproductions. I wish for you as well the opportunity to experience an exhibit if you can get to one, particularly of works you already enjoy. I also attended a Tiffany glass show, and was stunned by how different the pieces were “in person” to the reproductions found in stores.

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Excellent story, thanks for sharing this. The painting is beautiful as well, I could see myself staring at it for quite some time as well.

I appreciate your visit, Steve. Thanks for liking my story. It really was a pivotal moment in my life. The painting is lovely, isn’t it? I hope to get to D.C. one of these days and see it again.

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