In the seventies my brothers and I loved a board game called Masterpiece: The Art Auction Game. It had a deck of twenty-four cards, each card a masterpiece, a reproduction of a famous painting. We traveled the circular board with our character tokens — “collectors” who came complete with autobiographies — buying up masterpieces by bidding on them at auction. When we won an auction, we received our masterpiece card, like Monopoly but with paintings. The player who amassed the most valuable collection won the game.
The Renoir masterpiece was my favorite. The Van Gogh self-portrait spooked our little-kid imaginations — we’d learned he’d cut off his own ear in a fit of madness.
I’m not an art expert, but this game inspired a life-long love, a romance with paintings, a feeling that I’m a child gaping, overjoyed, at the wonders of the world. In my mind’s eye, famous paintings wallpaper my brain’s chamber of memories where I store every single thing that makes me happy, that inspires me, that tells me: “Ah, this is the meaning of life.”
Not long ago, while researching art theft for a novel I’m writing, I discovered others are affected by paintings in the same way, can be so moved by art …
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
— Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio
Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini recorded intense and overwhelming reactions similar to Stendhal’s among patrons visiting the Uffizi and other Florentine galleries in a 1979 study. Dr. Magherini named the phenomenon “Stendhal syndrome,” based on the French novelist’s description above of his visit to see the Giotto frescoes in the Basilica Santa Croce where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried. She explored the profound effect artworks can have on the subconscious, on the psyche; and how past feelings or events can flash to the surface of the mind, making the subject feel faint or dizzy.
I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence a dozen years ago, but my encounter with this sensation, with Stendhal syndrome, occurred about three years ago in Boston …
On the lawn at the Museum of Fine Arts on Huntington Ave, I dodge a Frisbee tossed by a Northeastern student. I laugh, happy to be back in Boston after many years away, eager to gain entrance to the granite edifice, to see the masterpieces, to delight in genius. I pay the entry fee, grab a museum guide.
I gape at the ceiling, try not to trip on the marble steps that lead to the rotunda, like I’m ascending to heaven — to a lofty dream floating above my head. At the top of the stairs, I gasp … indeed, I am. I enter the rotunda, a dramatic three-storied open space — an oculus in the building’s core — another world, a sanctuary for imagination and heart.
I grip the iron balustrade, look down at the floor below, look up at the murals that limn the domed ceiling. Elated, a little dizzy, I’m fascinated to learn the museum commissioned the renowned portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint the murals. I love his sexy portraits of Victorian ladies in daring dresses, like Madame X and Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston art patroness. Now I can add another of his masterpieces, the murals — his divine domed ceiling, his “Sistine Chapel” — to my “collection.”
I study my guide, a map of my treasure hunt. Spokes of galleries radiate from this pivot point. I’m off. My heels click on the marble floor. My silver trench coat flaps behind me. I pass into the grand European room of old master paintings. Stunned by the room’s heart-stopping brilliance, its unworldly beauty, I sit on the wooden settee to study the kaleidoscope effect of images arranged floor to ceiling. I feel awe such objects, such a place exists.
I check the map again, mark the gallery I’m eager to see. The paintings in the nineteenth and twentieth century European gallery call out Siren-like, but I move on, eager to make my way to the far back corner of the museum’s second floor. My expectation, my excitement builds as I pass through a series of galleries, as if they’re chambers leading to a throne room beyond, to a divine presence.
Ah, the gallery of Impressionism. The museum guard stares into space. Only a handful of folks mill about this weekday afternoon. I glance at the guard, worried he thinks I’m a crazy woman — wide-eyed, like someone obsessed — an art thief, maybe. I take a deep breath, begin my promenade. I stop to wonder at one of Monet’s Water Lilies.
Then I turn to the other side of the room, where I see a painting that takes my breath away. A famous masterpiece, very recognizable. Enormous, life-sized, just shy of six-feet tall I learn. I had no idea it was so large.
Two figures in hold, dance. A waltz? A polka? They are nineteenth century. The man’s bearded face juts out from under his ochre hat. He wears thick boots; workman’s pants, shirt, jacket –a solid block of cobalt, a frame for the woman — his eyes hidden by the rakish angle of the hat. His body language says it all — his intent for holding the woman.
The woman’s swoony pale-pink gown swishes the floor. A poppy-red bonnet tops her ginger hair. She cants her head, her eyes down. Enraptured in the moment. A dance in the sunshine of a Parisian afternoon in an outdoor café. The master: Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The masterpiece: Dance at Bougival.
I feel tears prick my eyes, salt my face. Feel so dizzy, so moved, so very happy, I have to sit down on the bench in the middle of the room to regain my balance, to wipe my eyes. I stare at the painting for some time, picturing myself inside it — inside that French day, dancing, life swirling around me. Ah, imagination. Ah, life. A perfect day.
* * *
Not long after my museum visit, I joined Twitter and chose Dance at Bougival for my avatar rather than a picture of myself. I left it that way for a couple years, following other writers, collecting followers, mostly working on a novel, as if I were hiding behind the painting, letting it stand for what I wanted to say, for the stories I wanted to tell about something so beautiful it makes you cry, or so touching it breaks your heart, or so out-of-your-reach other-worldly it makes you sad.
Last fall when I joined Medium to publish essays like this, I felt I needed an actual picture of myself, that there was nothing I need hide behind anymore. I replaced the painting with a picture of myself from a landmark birthday at The Library Hotel in New York.
The day I viewed Dance at Bougival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I didn’t understand the intensity of my reaction to the painting. Discovering Stendhal syndrome inspired me to write about it. When I’d written a good chunk of this essay, I recalled the board game Masterpiece I’d played as a child, remembered all the stored-up happy hours my brothers and I’d spent playing. I began to suspect there was some connection between that game and my strong feelings when I viewed the Renoir in the flesh that day, as a similar painting had been my favorite as a girl. I added the sections about the game to this essay. Originally, I was going to call this piece “Stendhal Syndrome: My Afternoon at the Museum.” But now, strangely enough, the whole thing makes more sense …
The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the connections we make are important — the reason I make the effort to record events that pluck at my heart, that stick with me. I never know what event from long ago will appear, like a ghost, to connect to a recent occurrence and give meaning to my life.
I often think back to the day Dance at Bougival moved me to tears, inspired my life.