written by Erika Sampson
I find romance exhausting and overused. Sorry, buzz kill alert, I am simply not interested in faking or embellishing reality. Sure, I will watch a romantic movie, or read a romance novel from time to time, but it has to be done sparingly. Innately, I would argue that I am a critical person, and by no means am I complaining. Being pragmatic is beneficial for assignments, in work life, reviewing art submissions for OAR, having honest relationships, etc. It is hence ironic that I was intrinsically captured by a single piece of art, in the most romantic way possible. How is it that such a realist thinker could fall so fast into a romantic trope? It certainly happened against my will, and I would say it, (I cannot believe I am about to write this), was love at first sight.
My second blog post (hint: this one!) is going to cover my absolute favourite piece of visual art. Attached to this post is a picture I took of the work, so definitely give it a peak before reading onwards. The official, long-winded title of the work is, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl”. The artist’s name is James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and it was created in the mid 1800s. I do wish its title was slightly more interesting than “The White Girl”, but sadly there is not much I can do about that.
I first discovered her during my 2018 February reading week. I was allowed to pick a destination within a small radius of the continent, so I picked Washington DC. I had never been to DC, and I am currently studying politics and history, so it felt relevant to go there. I went from one capital city to the next, and obviously Ottawa, compared to Washington, is night and day different. I was thrilled to see Lincoln’s hat, Julia Child’s kitchen, the White House, the Washington monument, the Hope Diamond, etc. What I was not anticipating was being able to leave DC with my very own favourite piece of art (not physically obviously, my painting would be too expensive to just take home).
Every place I have ever called home has always, without fail, been full of art. From mainstream copies of Monet, to local artists’ abstract colour blobs, my home has always been a breeding ground for art appreciation. I have my mother to thank for that, as she truly filled every space in my childhood home with sculptures and paintings. She would take me (and still does when I am back home) to Toronto gallery openings, special Group of Seven exhibits, and to see local artists’ presentations. She volunteered for our city’s Art Council, and she enrolled me in art classes since I was five or six. I have always been exposed to art, for which I am immensely thankful. I did not think it was still possible to be so deeply moved by an artwork, I thought I have experienced it all already. I had been looking at art since my eyes opened; I had been making my own art since I could hold a paintbrush, what could possibly impact me?
Continuing on in DC, when my parents and I got to the National Art Gallery, I distinctly remember seeing the only da Vinci painting in North America, titled “Ginevra de’ Benci”. Next came rooms full of Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, and others. It was seriously amazing; lots to see, and lots of people doing the same thing. So picture this (haha, get it?), I had gone from just seeing some of the most noteworthy paintings that exist, then I turn the corner down an opposite hallway, and I come across “The White Girl”. Totally random, totally out of the blue, and she totally rocked my world.
Here is where my ‘realist’ perspective comes to an end, because once I turned down that yellow hallway and saw her it was game over for me. I know it is horribly cliché, but (sorry) my world just about stopped for ten seconds. Whistler’s painting of the girl (who I later found out is named Joanna Hiffernan), was and is spectacular.
My Parisian philosophy teacher in grade twelve taught a lesson on the importance of art, and its purpose in our lives. I will save you the gory details, but essentially she recounted that art for whatever reason pulls at people’s heartstrings in the most obscure ways. She opened up about her favourite painting that she discovered while at the Louvre. I remember she retold how she stopped and stared, dumbfounded, at one particular painting. She, for whatever reason, was so taken back that she felt like that painting, in that moment, was created just for her. Let me tell you, not only was it emotional listing to her tell us about her experience, but I was also emotional because I feared I would never have the same feeling. I had been exposed to art all my life, was I not completely desensitized? Would I ever have a painting that was ‘mine’?
Well, I did have an ‘out of body’ experience when I saw Joanna. Remember, this is coming from the realist; I do not even want to admit that it is true. “The White Girl” shook me so deep I think especially because I had not been expecting it. My mom said I disappeared for a moment in that gallery, she said my eyes were actually glazing over. That section of the gallery was not popular enough to merit a bench in the middle of the room, or else perhaps I could have caught my breath. I was no longer in Washington DC in that brief first encounter, I was wherever Joanna was posed for the painting. She was beautiful, it was like starting at someone I had known my whole life, yet had never met before.
So, I am standing in front of Whistler’s painting (which by the way is quite tall in real life), and I am gapping at her. It felt like in that moment I was meant to meet her, just like my philosophy teacher’s encounter. I could not help but personify this painting; she was like my own personal friend on the canvas. In theory, it helps that Joanna is presented as a young girl around my age, and with a generic enough face that she could be anybody.
I get it. This all sounds completely made up and ridiculous. Dearest reader hear me out, I am aware of how mad this sounds, but until you have experienced this I do not know what to tell you. I had not even examined her that much when I was standing there; I had just been staring at her melancholic face. It was only until I left the room, with the picture on my phone that I realized she was standing on a fur carpet, and holding a flower in her left hand. I had totally zeroed in onto her face, onto this painting worth more than a thousand words, that I neglected to even analyze it. I think there was a total of about five people in that particular section of the gallery, it seemed like everyone was skipping over it. What would have happened if I too had skipped over it?
Maybe Joanna will move you too; maybe like my mother you will be unfazed and skip it without even really remembering her. I truly could not tell you why this painting above the thousands that I have seen have affected me so. The only thing I know for certain now is that “The White Girl” joins my many others currently flooding my bedroom wall, just as the original sits in DC waiting for me to visit again.