"It's incredible how much you can learn about a painting by
spending a lot of time with a reproduction." Donna Tartt's
character explaining the first painting she loved, The Goldfinch.
At age 9, I studied the cards from the art auction board game
Masterpiece, highlighting the permanent collection
of the Art
Institute of Chicago. I memorized the artists, the titles, but not
the dates. (Hmm, typical, always avoiding numbers.) I owned
those card-sized paintings, held the museum in my hands. At
age 24, I finally visited the Chicago Institute of Arts and saw
the works in person. Renoir's rosy-cheeked sisters. Seurat's
obsessive dots. Caillebotte's wet Paris street. Cassatt's soft
mother and child. Wood's serious Iowans. It was moving
to finally see these in person, but it was the reproductions that
first etched the work in my memory and gently scratched my
My favorite card from that childhood game, Nighthawks by
Edward Hopper, 1942. (I had to look up the date.) What
about this captured my 9-year-old attention and imagination?
Edward Hopper, Nighhawks, 1942
Oil on Canvas, 33"x60"
Art Institute of Chicago
Later in The Goldfinch, "a really great painting is fluid
enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all
kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very
particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you."
I suppose growing up in rural Minnesota, landscape paintings
and traditional portraits seemed quite common place. But
standing on a New York street corner and peering in on total
strangers may have seemed exotic or mysterious. Not as jolly
as Seurat or innocent as Renoir. This amount of dramatic color
and value contrast is something I still find moving in paintings.
Before seeing this, my 9-year-old self didn't know that art
could be this moody or narrative. I know now that Hopper's
critics thought his work was about isolation and depression,
but for me the richness of color and how each viewer creates a
slightly different story about these four characters is probably
what drew me in all those years ago.
For me, the most powerful art brings up more questions than
answers. As artists, we know we don't have all the answers,
but we generously share the mysteries. The wonder. I never
yearn to be 9-years-old again while viewing art I love--already