museum memories: seurat up close

There is something about visual art that speaks to me on a near cellular level—inexplicably drawing me toward it and its creators. One of the reasons that made museum work appealing was the idea of being mere steps away from astonishing works of art on a daily basis.

Anyone that enjoys art most likely has a short list of must-see museums and/or objects. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in the Midwest the majority of my life and had visited the Windy City a few times, I didn’t darken the doors of a place on my top five, The Art Institute of Chicago, until several months ago.  Ridiculous, I know—not beating an immediate path to the place that holds such iconic works as Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Cross, New Mexico, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Kerry James Marshall’s joyous Vignette series? Believe me, it was purely a lack of funds, not desire.

Those treasures occupied my mind as I attended an Association of Midwest Museums workshop in June 2009. Thrilled that the costs were covered by my employer, I met fantastic people and learned a lot of useful information, but I already knew my favorite part of the day would be when the facilitators turned us loose in the galleries. Armed with a slightly dodgy digital camera and a museum map, I was determined to cover nearly 5,000 years of cultural objects in less than two hours.

I walked until my business-shoe-clad feet ached, cursing myself for not bringing a more comfortable pair of kicks. However, I had already decided that blisters were a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing this stuff. Each successive space delivered gasp-worthy moments. The joy of seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic carried me on a cloud to a colorful, Mondrian-inspired window by Frank Lloyd Wright. The meticulously executed details of the Thorne Miniature Rooms were given new meaning when compared to the objects in the European Decorative Arts Collection that may have adorned their large-scale counterparts.

My legs howled in protest, but I knew that visit couldn’t end without perusing Gallery 240, Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture. Granted, it doesn’t sound sexy, but it held something so marvelous, so deserving of praise that when I finally encountered it, my knees buckled, but not from exhaustion. Holding court in the center of the room, all 81 ¾ x 121-¼ inches of it, was Georges Seurat’s awe-inducing A Sunday on La Grand Jette.

This work has taken many forms for me.  The musical Sunday in the Park with George, based on the Seurat painting, was what my maverick sixth grade music teacher played for us whenever she tired of the classical selections the curriculum normally demanded.   She would teach us those songs as if we were Broadway-bound.  My third grade French teacher displayed a poster of the painting on the wall to supplement vocabulary lessons.  Those words automatically scrolled through my head as I marveled at the canvas: le parc, un parapluie, le chien, une robe, un bateau.

It represented knowledge, language, and culture. It evoked powerful images of old friends, caring adults, and countless hours practicing rolling my r’s comme le français. For goodness sakes, it was even one of only four wallpaper images labeled “art” on the laptop I’d purchased a week before! The realization that I had carried that image with me my entire life was mind-blowing. Created nearly 100 years before my birth during his twenty-sixth year, could Seurat have had any idea of what his painting would mean to someone like me? Doubtful. But its creation was evidence of his fiery nature, a painterly middle finger to anyone who dismissed impressionistic works that didn’t bear the name Renoir or Monet, and in that act I feel that we are kindred spirits.

Art isn’t easy, indeed.


Originally published at