Sunday Afternoon… SEEING vs Looking At Paintings

A couple of paintings — the world’s grand paintings — are inextricably tangled for me with broken hearts — and redemption. One is Leonardo’s Last Supper. The other is Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte by Seurat.

I was in Chicago to discuss marriage with my long-time boyfriend, Peter. Peter and I had been in love for more than five years. It was a problematic relationship because of Peter’s sexuality which was — except where I was concerned — gay. He had begged me to come to Chicago, to spend some time with him, to talk about marriage and children, to see his family again, to meet his grandparents, to see if I could live in Chicago. What he hadn’t told me was that he was living with a man and that man wasn’t crazy about Peter’s idea of marrying me and living happily ever after.

So I arrived in Chicago and Peter met my plane. Several months had gone by since we’d seen each other. We jumped immediately into our usual conversation which was entertaining, funny, smart, irreverent and personal. We agreed we’d missed each other desperately. We sat entwined on the leather sofa in the living room of Peter’s apartment drinking wine when there was a thump from the back of the apartment and feet pounding down the stairs.

“I have to go,” Peter said.

“Who’s that?”

“Paul. My boyfriend.”

And he left. He didn’t return for hours, meanwhile, having drunk some cheap wine and not having eaten anything (that was the journey on which I learned to eat whenever you can when you’re traveling) I was not very happy — or comfortable.

I called the airline and airline regulations forbade me from changing my ticket. Fast forward…(fast, I wish) two days of bitter acrimony and the struggle (Peter’s not mine) to keep me away from Paul. I am on the El. I am heading to the Chicago Art Institute. I have never been in a big city before alone. Everything is new to me. It’s September. I am enchanted by everything and everyone. I see Theodore Dreiser on every corner. I get off at my stop and cross the street.

The King Tut exhibit is advertised in bright blue and gold. I am not interested in King Tut. I am interested in solitude and paintings. I pay my admission. I turn right, away from the mummies, and head down the stairs. At that moment I’m interested in Impressionism and Fauvism. Near the bottom of the stairs, on a gray wall with a red wall behind it, lit at the perfect angle, larger than I knew it would be, is a painting I had always detested.

Why would anyone do that? Paint with little dots? What’s the point of that? Stupid affectation. Absurd. (I was [obviously] all about passion at that stage of my life.) Reason? Reason was for suckers…or something.

That was when I understood for the first time that no reproduction of a painting serves that painting well. This thing was COMPLETELY different from all the photos and slides, all the bloodless discussions and lectures about pointillism. This thing was ALIVE and BEAUTIFUL; shimmering. In fact, it seemed at that moment, that the painting loved me. It’s whole reason for being was to heal my broken heart by taking me out of the small world of a hopeless relationship. Philosophy over passion? This painting was WHY.

Still, it didn’t “say” anything to me. It did what a really great painting can do; it surprised me and by surprising me, became an experience. It wasn’t something to look at or regard in some solipsistic or pedantic way. It was force of its own. Both the Last Supper and Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte were experiments. Their painters were — to some extent — “dinking around” with an idea they had about painting and, perhaps, something they wanted to say. But…I don’t think so.

I wasn’t the same afterward. I looked at many more paintings that day and saw many wondrous things. I left the Chicago Art Institute happy and light-hearted. I shared a pizza with a stranger in a nearby restaurant. I rode the El back to Peter’s store. I spent the afternoon with a Mexican cowboy boot distributor who was beautiful and sexy — and straight. I got on a DC-10 and returned home, three seats to myself for that flight, and the knowledge I had gained from the painting, that there was more to life than romantic love and I would find it.

Years later — not that many, actually, maybe seven — I saw on PBS, Sunday Afternoon in the Park with George. I LOVED it — and then this line which, I think, sums up life pretty well.

A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.”


Only a VAGUE Gesture — this painting is much more than any reproduction can begin to be.


10 thoughts on “Sunday Afternoon… SEEING vs Looking At Paintings

  1. At least the afternoon was not wasted. I have been to many art exhibitions with Mr. Swiss who understand a lot more than me. I remember Picasso’s blue period. My niece is an art specialist with doctor title and took us once of a guide tour of a Georgia O’Keefe exhibition in Zürich. She drew our attentiont a lot of details that we otherwise would not have noticed.

  2. I love this post, and it reminded me of the first time I saw a John Singer Sargent painting after seeing him as no more than a boring Society artist, and then he impressed me even more with his WW1 painting, “Gassed.” It’s great when art surprises you like that, isn’t it?

      • Finding that something which we thought to be ugly is beautiful – not getting stuck in out-dated thought patterns. BTW, were you heartbroken over Peter? It’s as if you forgot all about him when you saw the Seurat painting…

        • I was heartbroken — and still am in a little part of me. But that’s when I knew he was more to me than I could ever be to him, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, Peter couldn’t change it, and some things in life just don’t make sense. I never saw him again. In 1988, he died of HIV.

          Seurat’s painting didn’t make me forget about him, but it did instantaneously show me that there was more to the world than what I was imagining in my mind. It’s been a life-long journey for me to reality. 🙂

          • It’s terribly sad, finding a man who suspended his own disbelief for long enough to consider marrying someone of the wrong sex. You must have meant a lot to him.
            One of the most attractive men I know is gay. When I was told, forty years ago, I refused to accept it even after I met his boyfriend. I saw him a few days ago, and I still feel a kind of a pull when he speaks my name, but I have a feeling it’s the feminine in him that appeals to me. It makes me feel cosy.
            As for reality, I live in that, and I’m not crazy about it sometimes. 🙂

  3. A special and revealing narration. How something leads to something else. I wrote about “Only connect!” We seem to connect the dots: here I am, and we are connected now, a bit, though the Seurat. And that is lovely.

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