PCS Blog

Falling in Love With a Canvas

Posted by Natalie Gilmore | 15 February 2012

What is it about a painting that draws us out of our world and sucks us right into another place completely? When I was growing up, I didn't know that a picture on a wall could have that kind of power. I went to museums, but I was always more interested in the stories of how art got made and how the artist that made it lived. The piece of art hanging in the museum was just one part of the story in my young, dramatic imagination.
But then I saw this. I will never forget the moment. I was on a field trip with my 11th grade history class (Yes! Art History was taught as part of history class!) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. I was wandering through the gallery and when I looked up at this large painting, I literally had to sit down. Many people must have this reaction, because there was a bench right in front of the painting.  It's moment that's really hard to describe. That painting pulled me right out myself. It made my stomache squeeze and my breathing change. The little girl's gaze was so intense. I could almost feel the heaviness of the sleeping baby in my lap. I just stared, tranfixed by the perfect details of the hands and feet of the children.
It's William Bouguereau's The Elder Sister. You can read all about the artist and the painting here.
It's such an amazing experience to be completely bowled over by a piece of art. It happened to me all the time in the theater, and still does. But my little 15-year-old self didn't expect that kind of emotional pull from something flat hanging on a wall! It was so powerful! It's stuck with me all these years. I had poster of this painting in my college apartment, the only art print in a sea of theater posters.
In our upcoming production of Red, Mark Rothko talks about creating paintings that suck the viewer into an overwhelming experience with his intense planes of color. He sought to create these kinds of enthralling moments between the viewer and the painting.
Have you had a transcendent moment with a painting? Has paint on a canvas moved you  more emotionally than you thought possible? Tell us about it here and be entered to win a pair of tickets Red. Winner will be drawn February 28, 2012.
Comments (10)

Ohhh I am so excited! Thank you so much! I had the greatest time writing that, and reading all the other comments too!

And the winner, drawn at random, is. . . . .Nyla Alisia!!!

Nyla, thank you so much for sharing your story with us!! Please pick up your ticket vouchers for Red at the concierge desk at the Armory. Once you have the voucher you can arrange for your tickets with the box office. Hurry! Tickets for this show are going fast!!

  • Natalieg
  • 01 Mar 12 11:47

~laughing~ Sorry for the typos! I was a little excited writing this!

It was one of those moments, like when you wet your pants in the first grade and all you want to do is to run somewhere and hide, but there never is, a place to hide, in those situations, is there? It was my first time at the Portland Art Museum, in fact, it was my first time at any art museum for that matter, and I was on a date. Not just a normal date, I was crazy about this guy, you know the type, tall, handsome, intelligent, very intelligent. Now, a little more background might be helpful for you to get the full impact of the situation, I am a writer, and not just any type of writer, no… I am a poet; meaning I am overly fascinated with the world anyway! The museum was incredible, I know I must have looked like an awe struck four year old the first time they walk into a candy store! My mind was in heaven, I was surrounded by the most indescribable visual stimulation I had ever encountered. I was awe struck. If I had of stumbled into this alone, one of three things would have happened; one- I would have been licked out within the first few moments for squealing so happily, that I would have shattered glass, two- I would still been in there, perhaps three paintings from the door… just looking, three- imploded and exploded all at the same time from the input and the outpouring of inspiration I found in it. It would have been a mess, ruined the paintings, and I would be practicing art in the way of tattoos on Betty, my cell mate. But, since I was on a date, I did very well at holding myself together. That is, till I got to Vincent van Gogh’s Ox Cart. I do not know what happened, or why it happened, but as soon as I saw it, I started crying. At first it was just the sting, and I blinked hard and took a couple deep breaths, but it did not help. By the time I was standing in front of it, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was pulled so deeply into the very fibers of each brushstroke, that I could feel the cold of the room, feel his labored anise breath, sour and warm, I could see the wood table he carved in, the oil lamps he used when he painted it. I could feel my heartbeat pounding against my rib cage, taste in the air the oil from his paints. By this time, I could no longer control the tears, they were streaming down my face full force. I stepped a little closer to the painting,  trying very hard to not let anyone see me. Every brushstroke spoke to me, as clearly as if they were written lines, as if he were there, reaching out to me, whispering across the foot and a half that separated us. I could feel him there, see him at the canvas, taste own brand of madness, or at this point was it my own? It was as if on this canvas, he painted a language I forgot I knew, and everything I knew about him, his life, his struggles, washed over me like a dark pulse screaming his brilliance. Now, I might have pulled it off, till I felt my dates hand on my shoulder and heard him ask me if I was okay. I could not speak, as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, it came out more like broken sobs, little choked on words; “He, ... this, .... paint…. touched… ” There was no hiding that I was crying now, and the way he was smiling at me only made it worse, not a bad smile, but a happy one. I wanted to run and hide, but there was no where to go! So,I stood there with him, his arm around me, taking the napkin he offered me from his pocket, crying.  We stood there awhile, he, letting me have my moment. Later, I tried to explain it to him, almost like I am doing here with you now, why it affected me like it did. and the closest I could come is that I was standing in front of something he created, it was real and not in a book, or back-lit screen, I was standing where he would have been standing when he was alive and painting it, right there, right where I was standing, while somewhere inside his amazing mind, he created that masterpiece. It made me feel a connection I will never be able to explain- it would be like holding a poem that Poe had hand written, or having Oscar Wilde’s blue velvet coat draped over my shoulders.

I wish I could say this was the first time this happened, but that would be a lie, on another date we went to the Abby, to the library, where being surrounded by the smell of all the ancient books made me weep, or when he took me to Swan Lake, my first ballet. Are is an incredible and amazing thing, as artists it is the very best reward we could ever hope for, to create something from our inner world, that will some day, somewhere, provoke that kind of emotional response from someone, just as The Ox Cart did for me, and for a moment, because of it, I stood beside him, in his world, I understood what he was saying.

My first memory of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat, was in 1981, while studying Art History in School. At the time, the painting was nearly 95 years old. To remember his works, we called him Seurat the Dot. It was decades later that I learned how he would have been offended by the reference. He wanted to be remembered for his use of color theory, using complemetary colors to enhance and brighten his paintings, to paint with emotion.
It’s fascinating to me, to see how his painting has crossed into other mediums. In 1984, the musical “Sunday in the Park with George” written by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway, a moving interpretation of the painting and it’s creator. A few years later, the painting had a supporting role and here John Hughes talks about the scene in his film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Like the movie’s character Cameron, I could stare at Seurat’s painting for hours, reflecting on the influence a single spot of pigment can have on the thousands surrounding it. And that is why I believe Art History and Painting should be required in School. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience a deeper understanding of the World around them and their effect on it.

  • Kathleen Arvidson
  • Portland, OR
  • 27 Feb 12 11:32

The first time I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York Van Gogh’s Starry Night transfixed me.  I stared at it caught by its power, depth and emotion and I remember feeling as if I were being pulled into the painting and held there.  I finally broke away when I got dizzy and had to sit down.  That was the first time I’d had such an intense experience with—or in—a painting.  And it was wonderful and just a bit frightening.

  • M Devlin
  • Portland, Oregon
  • 25 Feb 12 03:19

Many years ago, while in Milan, Italy, I had the opportunity to view Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  We stood and viewed it for a very long time, kept seeing something different and felt the strong emotions of the painting.  It is an amazing painting, and I felt myself being a part of that Last Supper.  Each disciple has a different look on his face, made me wonder if they really understood.  It will always remain etched in my memory.

  • Pat Kehr
  • Tillamook, OR
  • 23 Feb 12 10:45

A local artist and friend of mine was able to have an open house at a coffee joint in town. It was the first time I saw his paitings, vs. pictures of the paintings posted on his Facebook page. It was amazing. His pieces are black and white, layered with tissue paper based off photographs. Some are portraits he took himself of loved ones and friends - others were from dark dreams he had and all he could remember were images. These horrific, almost violent images.
It made my eyes tear up - realizing how talented my friend was and I was so moved by his huge pieces. His talent has made me appreciate art - the painting, sculpting, photography form. I’ve always loved the theater and movies and thought I just “didn’t get it” when it came to paintings. Christian’s work moved me. I don’t miss any of his art shows now.

My wife and I were visiting New York City on the day after Thanksgiving approximately 7 years ago.  We went to the Frick in the Upper Eastside as we read that there was an original Vermeer.  We were delighted to find they had 3 original Vermeers!  I was carefully inspecting “Mistress & Maid” as I was fascinated that the fur on her sleeves really looked like fur.  I was trying to analyze the brush strokes, but got admonished by the guard that I was too close.  But the most surprising thing happened just after that.  Right across from that Vermeer was their original Renoir, “La Promenade.”  As I inspected that painting (not as close as the Vermeer), I was thinking about the speculation that Renoir had been near-sighted and that is why he painted in soft focus.  But as I backed up 6-8 feet from the painting, it went into focus!  I realized that Renoir was such a consummate painter that he could stand right next to the canvas painting in soft focus, creating it to be viewed from further back and knowing how to have it go into focus from a distance.  Amazing!  (I haven’t done the same thing with any other Impressionists, so they very well may have been near-sighted.)

  • Doug Jonsson
  • Beaverton, OR
  • 22 Feb 12 01:47

My transcendent moment with a painting came in 1993 when I viewed Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus at The Louvre Museum.  As an artist, I was visiting the room of my “idol”.  The painting drew me in with it’s intensely rhythmic composition and rich color.  I couldn’t quit looking at every brushstoke.  Even though the painting is violent (Sardanapalus is having all his “belongings” destroyed (horses, slaves etc.), burning the city etc., so the invading army will have nothing as he lounges passively on his bed), I was so enraptured by every part of the painting that the violence of the subject became secondary for me.  I was swept away by how it was constructed and painted.  The fierce passion in how it was painted and it’s grandeur of size left me spellbound.  I spent many hours and several days at the Louvre studying it.  I got many odd looks from the guards, who probably thought I was nuts.  I truly entered every cell of that painting and to this day it still teaches me profound lessons in art and transcendence.

  • Janice Packard
  • Gresham, Oregon
  • 18 Feb 12 12:14

Join the conversation!

Portland Center Stage welcomes your comments and criticism.

We invite you to share your comments with us on our Facebook page.


For current and upcoming shows, please see our Season Calendar.

Sign up for the PCS email list.

Season Sponsors