Soothing Beauty, Calming Art


Whenever I find myself in doubt or trouble, I tend to seek out places of beauty ~ the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Public Library, the US Botanical Gardens, or even a simple greenhouse, where I can breathe in the scent of warm earth, and examine the patterns of orchid petals and the airy foliage of ferns. Beauty has a way of calming the soul. Such was the case when I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on New Year’s Eve.

At first, I didn’t recall the space. The rotunda, decked out in festive holiday garland and Christmas lights, surrounded a Christmas tree. Crowds were gathering, I assumed for the John Singer Sargent exhibit of watercolors (I would later discover that the first 300 people who showed up that day got in free for some promotional deal.) The space felt familiar, but I still didn’t directly remember being there. In fact, for about an hour I was certain that this was my first time visiting.

It wasn’t until I saw one of my favorite paintings that it all came flooding back: ‘The Painter’s Honeymoon’ by Lord Frederic Leighton. In it, an artist is working on something, while his presumed new wife sits by his side, hand clasped in his. Once upon a time I was a hopeless romantic, and this painting spoke a great many things to me. It told tales of an idealized notion of love, the way we all wish it could be. It whispered longings and hopes and dreams of one day finding that love, of locating such happiness in the arms of another. Yet there were hints of darkness too – the possibly-disengaged gaze of the artist, the perhaps-one-sided adoration and support, the somewhat-tortured aspect of the whole scene. Was she holding him there out of love or obligation? Was he happy to have his hand held or was it tiresome? Did either of them yearn to be somewhere else? Why was he working on his honeymoon? A great work of art posits these question, along with several possible answers, while never giving anything definitively away.

Upon seeing this sculpture, I realized this was my third time at the Museum (oh memory, how you have failed me). The second time I brought two of my friends who were visiting Boston, and there’s a picture of me, with my Structure work pin on my Structure dress shirt before an afternoon shift, making this same quasi-peace-sign with my hand.

Hallway after hallway opened up to more beauty. As the day worn on, and I soaked up more of the artwork, I felt calmer. The worries of family drained away, the concerns of home seemed distant and remote. The very demons that drove me to escape here had dissipated, run off as if singed by the flames of such roaring prettiness.

Below is ‘La Japonaise’ by Monet. It was in the working portion of the museum, behind a wall of glass so visitors could watch the restoration and maintenance process. I almost prefer seeing paintings like this sometimes, as if I were catching a glimpse of the work in its final stages, still on the artist’s easel, not quite ready for display. The moments before are always the moments that matter.

Of course, there’s something to be said for gilded frames and rich red damask walls as well, and once upon a time I would have decorated my entire home in such gaudy splendor (and often did). For now, I’ll leave it to the experts, and the expanse of a space like the MFA.

The embodiment of Air. One last look at a sculpture of Cleopatra at the entrance, then I depart. Down the stone steps, accompanied along the sidewalk by a flock of Canadian geese, their green shit marking the return to the real world, the present, the rumbling train.

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