While in Paris, Mom, Laura and I went to Musée d’Orsay to see the Impressionist paintings. It wasn’t until I saw the first Renoir that I remembered he and I share Rheumatoid Arthritis. When I saw that first painting (I can’t remember which it was), his words rang in my head as if I’d just read them:
“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
I had tears in my eyes as I walked from painting to painting, trying to swallow, checking dates to see when he’d painted this, how severe his disease was at that time. I walked into another room and saw Two Young Girls at the Piano. My friend, Katherine, had a print of it hanging over her bed in Washington D.C., and we used to spend countless hours writing in that room, long before (yet not long at all) I knew what Rheumatoid Arthritis even was.
And in the next room were the paintings of his round, redheaded wife. She beamed at the viewer as she danced or looked deeply content nursing their child, and I wondered what it was like for her, when Renoir woke in the night crying from pain and begging for his paintbrush.
I love Renoir for his pain, which bursts out in colors and bold strokes, but which is more privately ours. He is not famous for his disease (as Van Gogh is), but it is a thing I feel acutely when I look at his scenes of women and nature and life—that aching longing that is a cry and a song, a mourning and a joy, for worlds without any pain at all. Worlds where beauty is not purchased by agony and healing comes without a cost.
I love Renoir for this.
But, of course, I was also touched to see so many Monets. My love for Monet is something I share with Mom, and something she shared with her mom. I could hear her breathe in sharply when she stood in front of the waterlilies, see her tremble a little as she remembered.
I think that paintings—and art in general—are a kind of immortality, not just for the painter but for the viewer as well. We live again through the paintings we love, and our loved ones live, too.
There is something magical about paintings, and particularly about the Impressionists, that takes us through color and texture to places, people, times we knew but lost, and to things we have not yet known but already miss.
The pain passes. Beauty remains.