I had been engaged for hours by paintings. The exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum examined the sources of inspiration the Impressionist painters had found in art of earlier eras. As usual, I was struck by the boldness of Manet—here, especially for me, seen in his painting of Victorine Meurent, which dated from 1862. Her brightly lit face with its subtle yellow light and ochre shadow was hardly simpler, hardly more complex, than her white blouse with its black lines of detail and quick swishes of gray shadow. Despite the bright face of this working woman our gaze was pulled upward to the blue ribbon in her hair. The ribbon was a subtle challenge—the will of a working woman to find elements of beauty and a painter’s will to compose and use color beyond expectation. In the Renoirs was the pillow of pleasure. The indulgent softness of his paintings always for me excludes all possibilities aside from the joys of pleasure. Despite the offering of flesh in the Renoirs, my favorite of his works in the show was “Still Life with Bouquet,” which was overwhelmingly, brightly orange. The still life had red and yellow flowers wrapped in white paper that shown with crisp creases and angles of bright light along with two leather-bound books and a Japonisme vase that held a Japanese fan and a feathery plume. In the background of the painting, hung against an orange wall by a red ribbon, was the image of a Manet etching, which was itself a copy of a painting by Velasquez.
I grew hungry and went to the museum café for a late lunch. I selected an over-priced, fashionably unusual, but still basically ham, sandwich and a bag of lightly salted chips. I stood at the register to pay. The young man behind the register tapped at its keys with his right hand and his left hand lay lightly on a seating chart. As I watched his right hand work at the register, I studied the tattoos of orange and black fish that seemed to swim on the pale flesh of his forearm. The tattoos had the softness of Renoir’s brushstrokes. He did not look up at me. I began to stare at his face in the hope that he would register my presence and let me pay for my food. There was a small loop earring in each of his ears. The earrings reflected his white shirt and stood in contrast with his well trimmed black hair. I thought about the black and white contrast that Manet used to call attention to the subtlety of a face as I waited. It seemed I waited several minutes, standing still and almost patiently. The young man seemed delicate. I began to wonder how delicacy shaped his life and how parts of his life must further refine the delicacy. I waited in a calm challenge to the storm of my growling stomach. How long had it been when he finally looked up at me? The stud in the flesh just below his lower lip glinted like a sliver of glass in the café’s sallow light.
“Have you been helped?” the young man said. He looked at me as if I were an inconvenience yet inconsequential.
“No,” I said.
He tilted his head a little. I offered my sandwich and chips. “I would like a cup of tea. Please.”
He flipped light-handed a laminated tea list to me. “An Earl Grey, please,” I said.
His turn was as slow as a painted pirouette, as if he was one of Degas’s pastel ballerinas, and he was gone. I knew I would wait several minutes for my tea.
* * *
The exhibition was "Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past," which is currently at the Seattle Art Museum.