Auguste Renoir. A Girl with a Watering Can. 1876. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
This was my mother’s most cherished painting at the National Gallery of Art. We viewed it together several times in my youth. When work took me to Washington in later years, I always stopped at the NGA, and she asked eagerly for news of her painting. After her final stroke, when she lost the ability to speak, various Renoir reproductions became a kind of shared visual language we could point to and understand.
After her funeral in 1999, I needed to stand before Renoir’s painting again and pay my mother’s respects. I was shocked when I walked up to the Impressionist galleries and found them closed. All those masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne had been removed for Paul Mellon’s memorial service. He had owned the paintings once, gave them to the museum, so I guessed it was his due. Then I stumbled accidentally into preparations for Mellon’s swank send-off over in the East Wing. A guard stopped me and said it was invitation only. “But what about my mother?” He looked at me like I might be trouble. Riding the Red Line back to the hotel on Dupont Circle, I felt defeated. I’d left a duty undone, a promise unfulfilled.
I couldn’t rest until I found a reason to go back to Washington several weeks later. A Smithsonian conference on “Disability and Public History” was the ticket. I took another week’s leave from work so I’d have time to write at the NGA. The Impressionist galleries were open again. My heart skipped a beat as I entered the Renoir gallery and looked, ever so awkwardly, for that familiar swatch of color. Would it be there? It was.
And before it stood two young girls, maybe ten years old, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders. They swayed and talked exuberantly about what they saw in the painting. Meyer Schapiro would have been proud. My mother would have been touched. Much of what I experience now in art museums comes from listening to such ambient conversation. I tried to fade into the wainscoting so I wouldn’t break the spell. After a time the girls noticed me and shyly moved on, arm in arm, to the next painting. I knew then I’d shared an unexpected blessing larger than my grief.
First posted on March 11, 2008.