“Been there, done that” is not my style. I’ve been to Paris five times and just got back from another month there. I love places like the Louvre and Notre Dame — but not because they’re famous or on some bucket list.
Notre Dame is a sacred place, but not always. It’s a heart-stopping Gothic cathedral, but it’s not enough to find myself there. Notre Dame has to find me there, and I’m not there if I’m feeling rushed or crowded or otherwise importuned. That’s why I keep going back.
Of course, the cathedral is closed following the fire. I guess I’ll have to go back when it reopens.
And the Louvre — it’s a great museum, but not always. It has to find me there, too. All of me. And it’s not me if I’m just clicking after someone else who wants to check the Mona Lisa off their list but can’t spend too much time looking at it because, you know,
But paintings hold treasures that can’t be seen in passing or in even the best reproduction. I never admired the Mona Lisa before seeing it in person. I’d seen reproductions, of course — who hasn’t? But its greatness eluded me until the first time I stood there before it 12 years ago.
Mona’s smile isn’t the half of it. Reproductions all show Da Vinci’s “sfumato”—a technique for softening lines—but not the way the sfumato deepens the landscape into the distance. Reproductions all clearly show Da Vinci’s chiaroscuro, his use of light and shadow, but not the way Mona Lisa’s hands float like rafts of light on a dark pool.
You can’t just see a painting. You have to let the painting see you. Stand in front of it for ten or twenty minutes or more and let it look you in the eye. Then the painting will show itself to you in a way you never expected. And it will show itself to you in a way that it won’t show itself to anyone else.
My last two visits to Paris, in 2017 and 2019, my favorite painting at the Orsay Museum– Gustave Caillebotte’s Rooftops in the Snow (1879 — was gone, on temporary loan to the Tokyo Museum of Art. You can see a reproduction of this wonderful painting here:
This time the painting was back in place in the Impressionist galleries on the Orsay’s fifth floor.
I visit the Orsay so often when I’m in Paris that I paid for a membership that lets you skip the long ticket lines. This time I made use of another membership privilege: early admission a half-hour before doors open to everyone else. The only one there when the doors opened to members, I made a beeline for the fifth floor and Caillebotte.
I love how sometimes a book or a painting seems to focus on one thing but then surprises you with something else — like the end of Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” Suddenly the work is larger than you imagined, sometimes even larger than the author planned.
Standing there alone with this painting, I noticed a detail I hadn’t seen before. In the lower right, below all the rooftops bright with snow, there’s a dark street corner. I could feel myself coming around that corner, feel the cold creeping under my coat as if I were passing there that very moment in the dark.
And I felt a flash of recognition. I know corners like that, urban back alleys in winter in my hometown, Elizabeth NJ.
And Caillebotte’s detail brought to mind a favorite passage from the journals of Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson. Under the Latin heading, Iactura vitae–”throwing your life away”–Jonson writes:
A little winter-love in a dark corner. Caillbebotte paints the moment, a place we scurry through on our way to somewhere warmer and brighter. The painter shows us rooftops bright with snow, but something else too, a dark afterthought to the light, a place we experience more frequently than his stunning rooftops.
(Writing about this painting now, I find myself wishing I were back at the Orsay to look at it again, see what else it has to show me, what else I missed.)
This column, “Coming Out,” is my coming in from the cold. I’m trying to understand myself better, and I believe that the things we talk about the longest we have the best chance to understand, And understanding is the goal, right? We don’t want to throw our lives away.
Each week we hear about new attacks on the transgender community — both violent physical assaults and ideological offensives as well as political attempts to criminalize transgender health care and education and to limit social participation, in sports and in the media and elsewhere.
Whatever your views on gender, it’s important to keep the conversation open, the lights on, and the place well heated. Luckily for Juneau’s readers, in the Empire’s Ben Hohenstatt we have someone keeping the lights on and tending the fire — an editor who sees an old-school commitment to human rights and a free press as integral parts of the newspaper business. He deserves recognition for this, and our thanks.
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Mr. Hohenstatt and the rest of the Empire staff and all of Juneau’s readers a wonderful holiday and a warm and well-lit New Year.
• Jane Hale lives in Juneau with her partner and their two dogs.