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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

Back to the Barnes

Lauren Sweeney

When I consider all the times that I have been to the Barnes Foundation, all the pieces that I've seen over the years and all the things that I've learned from dosants, teachers and other students, nothing can tell me why I am drawn to a particular piece or describe the power that it has over me and how it has, though it may seem insignificant, the way in which it has impacted my life. I am thinking of one piece in particular, and true to Dr. Barnes's vision, I know nothing of the piece other than the name of the artist who painted it and how I, personally have experienced and been affected by the piece. I am referring to a painting which is found in one of the second floor galleries of the Barnes. If you walk up the stairs it is the big room on the right, the one with the big Rousseau in the middle flanked by a dark painting of a man with a long grey beard and dressed in black on the left and a very dramatic-looking woman with two doves on the right. The particular painting to which I am referring is not given a position of prominence, nor does it really deserve one when compared with the other pictures in the room. It is utterly unremarkable in any respect and I have never heard anyone make mention of it at any time, even while standing in the room. "My" painting is clearly a Renoir, placed all the way to the right on the main wall, hung slightly below eye-level. I don't know when it was painted and I don't even know the title of the picture. I don't remember anything about the pictures which hang directly beside it, or even what the frame looks like (although I suppose that it is a thick, gold frame, like so many of the others) because everytime I see the painting, all that I can think of is the painted image itself, particularly the contrast of a cerulean blue against bright orange which, as my dad says, "makes the colors really pop." Is it the eye-catching combination of blue and orange which creates a sense of visual dynamism that makes me say that this painting is beautiful? Probably not, but I do think that that is what first caught my attention. I like bright, pure colors, and the particular shade of blue in the piece is especially attractive to me because of its purity. It is, in essensce, a very simple, very Impressionistic rendering of two females in white dresses, wearing very big, typically Edwardian hats, rowing an orange boat by a dock on what appears to be a lake or a river. The dock is visible in the foreground of the painting, in the bottom left corner of the canvas. Standing at the edge of the dock is a very insistent-looking Scottish terrier whom one can almost hear barking at the passing rowboat. The opposite shore is visible in the background behind the figures' heads. This scene is particularly appealing to me strictly on a visual basis, not only because it is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes, but also because the scene appears to be taking place on what I imagine to be a lazy summer afternoon. The brightness of the women's white dresses, the brightness of the orange boat, the brightnesss of the blue water, all indicate that the sun itself was shining brightly that day, a glimmering heat which would be almost too warm were it not for the breeze which undoubtedly blows over the surface of the water. I remember the first time that I noticed this painting, I was on a fieldtrip with the other twenty-five girls in my class during our junior year of highschool. The AP English teacher at our school also worked as a dosant every Thursday at the Barnes Foundation. We had already been to see Dr. Barnes's establishment at least three times during our highschool careers, and by this point, we were all a little fed up with the whole experience. I always felt obligated to keep quiet and internally reprimand the girls who complained aloud for being insolent and rude, but even I had begun to grow weary with being forced to look at the art again. Because we had spent most of our time downstairs, this trip was one of the few times that we were led to the second-floor galleries. I knew that I had been up there before, but it had been at the end of a long day and the only thing that I really remembered was that there was a collection of African art to the left of the stairs. I had no recollection of what lay to the right, though I assumed it was a series of Renoirs and Monets similar to the ones that had bored me on the first floor. We had been required to bring notebooks and pencils (not pens!) on this trip because we were supposed to choose one piece from the collection about which to write for our English class. When we were downstairs, we had been given twenty minutes to write about one of the pieces displayed in the room in which we happened to be sitting. I chose a Degas because I felt that as a dancer, I had some sort of obligation to him as an artist. I wasn't really interested in writing about the piece, so I sketched it instead and then waited the extra few minutes for our sentence to end until we would move on to the next room. When we finally went upstairs and were given the freedom to move into any of the upstairs galleries that we chose, I opted to stay in the gallery with the aforementioned Renoir because I was so taken with it, so much more so than any of the other paintings that I had seen throughout the day. (I didn't give the furniture or pottery a second glance or thought.) It happened that I ended up sitting down on the floor bedside my friend Sara who was writing about one of the painting near the chosen object of my affections. I had known Sara since the first day of kindergarten and we had gotten to be very good friends in gradeschool, but drifted a bit in highschool. We still talked like old friends, just not as frequently as before. As I sat beside Sara and looked at the blue and orange painting, I imagined that we were the two girls in the boat. I thought about how Sara did crew and she would know how to row it, whereas I knew nothing about watercraft. I thought about how hot it must have been to wear one of those white dresses with all of those petticoats and a corset in the midday summer sun. I thought about how Sara and I had spent most of the summer before ninth grade swimming in her new pool and lounging in the lavish garden to which her mother paid such close attention. The pool that her mother (a former competitve swimmer) had finally decided to put in was extremely decadent in my eyes; Olympic regulation length, heated and complete with fountains of water shooting out of the sides of the pool and into the center, and colored by various filaments. Sara's mother also insisted that the pool's inside be painted blue; not the pale aqua typical of most pools, but a deep royal blue, almost exactly the same shade as the water in the painting about which I had begun to write. I remembered how I felt laying in the sun by the pool with my best friend, drinking cokes and eating Double-Stuf Oreos which melted quickly in the sun and became a slippery mess by the end of the afternoon. I thought about how contented and indulgent I felt, and wishing that the sun didn't have to go down on that beautiful day. I took all of these thoughts and created something like a short story out of them. I wrote that the two girls, life-long friends, were vacationing together at the summer home of the taller girl with the straight dark hair, the one who held the oars. I described the scene, the brightness and warmth of the sun, the glittering ultramarine water and the little dog barking in greeting on the dock. In my story, the two girls in the boat had been out on the water all afternoon and were just about to come in for dinner. The dog belonged to the girl rowing the boat and had been walked to the water's edge by her sisters who had come to call the two in for dinner. I loved that little story and was very proud of the way I had written it. I must have felt very confident about it too because I submitted it to the school's literary magazine Chez Nous. I was the art editor of the magazine, but remembered the comments made by the people who rejected my submission. It was too short, there was no plot--very pretty descriptions of the setting, but no real story, just a piece of one. I had to keep my mouth shut because submissions to the magazine were kept anonymous, but I also remained silent because they were absolutely right. There was no reason for me to disagree; I saw all of the faults that they pointed out, but didn't understand why they weren't moved by the scene in the same way that I was. I have since realizes that my experience with this particular painting at the Barnes is not all that uncommon or particular to the ways in which people experience art. This particular piece "spoke to me" on a number of levels, and I am thankful that I was able to have this experience. The creative piece that I had written based on my experience with the painting and of past memories of my friendship with Sara were limited because I could only articulate those things which directly related to what I saw in the painting. My story was confined by the frame so that I only wrote about what was presented and how I interpreted it, but added very little else to the piece to make it my own. It was as if I had rendered a copy of the painting, using words instead of pen-and-ink. When I returned to the Barnes this year, I made a point of looking at this painting again. I still know nothing about it other than what I can guess. On our first visit with this class I remember checking to see if by some chance the picture had changed ir if it had been removed. I was relieved to find it exactly where I had left it two years ago, and that it caught my eye the same way, that I marvelled at the juxtaposition and composition of the colors, and that everything appeared just as I remembered it.

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