July 3rd, 2009 10:23 EST
The Rejuvenating Power of a Painting
I know a man whose refined sensibility was savaged by the untimely loss of his beloved wife. He decided in his despair to leave his work in America for a while and repair to Paris. There in The Louvre he encountered ThÃ©odore GÃ©ricault`s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa.
He was transfixed by this grand painting and spent many hours contemplating its nuances and subtleties. As a professional photographer he could see the limits of photography compared to painting, but he could also sense the painter resuscitating his own artistry, affirming it as might a beloved friend.
One of Corot`s Villes d`Avray
When he told me about this experience I mentioned that in the early 1970s when I had given up on my life I encountered one of many paintings of Ville d`Avray by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. I had wandered into The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, one morning soon after it opened. The painting held me as if an angel were gripping my shoulders.
Day after day I came back and stood before that little painting, losing myself in the shuddery silvern leaves of Corot`s aspens, the stillness of the pond, the exquisite detail. I remember that when I was a dangerously sick child my grandmother sat with me in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and I had marveled at the ghostly undersides of aspen leaves stirred by the wind.
Just as those days in the park had healed me, Corot`s painting day by day restored my desire to live. I reasoned that if a single human being could create something so beautiful surely I could find a reason to live in the hope of offering something to the world, if not nearly as perfect as Corot`s gift. Perhaps a smile at the right moment for the right person. Only that. It seemed hard. I don`t smile easily.
When all my reasoning failed and I fell back into the darkness I could always say, Don`t you want to come back and see this painting one more time? The answer was yes. And it kept on being yes.
Art isn`t as inanimate as we think. I think art has this restorative power, not as an alternative or adjunct to medicine or homeopathy but rather as an aspect of our divinity, a reminder that we have a purpose, perhaps even a reminder that wars, religions, politics, philosophies and that whole truck load of distractions hardly compare to a tree, a poem, a painting, a song. They are the junkyards of our collective mind, not the museums and parks.