It was my first year of graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington and there was a field trip from there up to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. The major exhibition was a collection of Modern Masters from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, including Matisse’s painting of “Nasturtiums with Dance, II” from 1912. It remains one of my all time favorites, even to this day. However, what I was not totally prepared for was the extent of the permanent collection in Chicago.
So many pieces that I had read about in art history books and now saw in person: from Corneille de Lyon and El Greco to Cezanne, Renoir, Manet and Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. This experience brought back many memories, especially me youthful visits to the National Gallery of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Recently in reading more about this work, and the work of contemporary poets, I came across this insightful piece by Thomas Lynch surveying this collection in Chicago. It is like a walking and talking tour of the Impressionist wing of the Art Institute.
“Art History, Chicago”
“It’s not so much a Sunday Afternoon
on the Island of La Grande Jatte as the point
of order according to Seurat –-
that bits of light and color, oil paints
aligned in dots become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look:
an assemblage of Parisian suburbanites
in Sunday dress, top hats and parasols,
are there among the trees beside the river.
There are girls and women, men and dogs
in random attitudes of ease and leisure.
A stretch of beach, boats in the blue water,
a woman with a monkey on a leash,
a stiff man beside her, a mother and daughter,
that little faceless girl who seems to look at us.
And everyone is slightly overdressed except
for a boatman stretched out in the shade.
He smokes his pipe and waits for passengers.
But I have never been to Paris.
I’ve never holidayed beside the Seine
nor strolled with a French girl in the gray morning
as in this Paris Street, A Rainy Day—
Gustave Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece
three galleries down in this collection.
So I do not know these cobblestones, this street,
this corner this couple seems intent on turning.
But I have walked with a woman arm in arm
holding an umbrella in a distant city,
and felt the moment quicken, yearning for
rainfall or a breeze off the river or
the glistening flesh of her body in water
the way this woman’s is about to be
that Degas has painted in The Morning Bath.
She rises from her bed, removes her camisole
and steps into the tub a hundred years ago.
History’s a list of lovers and cities,
a mention of the weather, names and dates
of meetings in libraries and museums
of walks by the sea, or through a city,
late luncheons, long conversations, memories
of what happened or what didn’t happen.
But art is a brush of a body on your body,
the permanent impression that the flesh
retains of courtesies turned intimate;
the image and likeness, the record kept
of figures emergent in oil or water
by the river, in the rain or in the bath
when, luminous with love and its approval,
that face, which you hardly ever see,
turns its welcome towards you yet again.”[i]
[i] Lynch, Thomas; Still Life in Milford; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1998; pp. 19-20.