Boulevard des Capucines, 1873 by Monet.
This has always been one of my very favorite paintings. I love Monet anyway, what’s not to like…but I love that this picture drew such criticism at the time. I love that it was part of the first exhibit of impressionist art and that it is so beautiful to look at. I usually spend quite a bit of time in front of this painting when I’m at the Nelson-Atkins here in town, so it should not be surprising that I gravitated toward it for the visio divina. Here’s what I was thinking, feeling, and hearing from God at the time.
This visio divina
exercise didn’t really happen for me until after a good 30 minutes of staring at this picture. It just took me a long time to unwind and to get “out of my head” and really inhabit what I was seeing. I had to think all of my thoughts once or twice and then push through the cerebral. Finally I began to just experience the picture. The experience started with the blue-gray haze in the distance portrayed in the upper right quadrant of the painting. I could feel the crisp cold Parisian winter air and I began to notice that the crowd and taxis were treading on snow. I love winter and I’m a little bummed about the heat of summer that is rolling in these days. I began to lose myself in the feeling of winter. At the same time I was wondering about winter 1873 in Paris. Everyone in black, smoke from fireplaces in the air, everything a bit more formal than now; it seemed to come alive for me for just awhile.
As I began to focus on the presence of God while I was living in that mental/emotional space I began the people. I look at the black renderings of people, scandalous for his time, and think how odd they would seem on their own. Any single one of the people from this painting, if they were lifted out and placed on canvas by themselves would be indistinguishable as a person. But together it makes sense; together it has such beauty and symmetry.
“See the people,” was the phrase that came into my mind. “See the people,” I thought over and over. I thought how lost in my intellect I am for much of the time. I thought of how I often talk past people and hope to reach them or engage them, but see them? I wonder. See the people…discern them as living body/soul/spirits who were crafted by the master artist; given shape and form, movement, purpose and meaning. They flow in harmonious streams along the Boulevard des Capucines propelled by the great brushstrokes of a master. I was watching the triad in the center, just left of the balloons. It seemed to me they stopped for a short conversation, maybe to have a smoke. I noticed for the first time the profile of a fellow onlooker from a neighboring balcony on the very right perimeter of the painting, top had and black coat, he is enjoying the same view as I. The trees swayed in the breeze and I could almost hear the clopping of horse feet on the muffled snow covered cobblestone street. I imagined the air cold enough that you could see one another’s breath; the smell of cigarette and cigar smoke, the sound of children laughing. The boulevard was alive to me in that moment.
Some undoubtedly scoff at the people, “those black tongue lickings” as one Monet critique of the time remarked. To them the people seem malformed, the representation irreverent. Not me. See the people, I thought, let the mind go for awhile and just see the people. Look at them, why are they here? What is my role in their lives? How can I serve them? How can I serve them if I do not first see them? All of those thoughts became deconstructed by the phrase of the moment…don’t do anything to them, leave them alone, don’t judge them, don’t touch them…just see them. Witness their reality. See the people. They are the ones who add motion to the picture. They provide the dynamic element. They are alive. See the people. Any one of them plucked from their relationship to each other or to the environment (thinking cosmos internally here) would cease to have the same meaning, would cease to be quite so striking and important. So I just gazed upon the people and listened as God taught me about seeing people, really seeing them in their context and appreciating their created-ness and beauty. I see them, walking, talking, breathing, laughing, smoking, freezing, running, playing, strolling people along the Boulevard des Capucines.