My Unconquerable Soul (The National Gallery of Art)

“I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul”

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

“The Waterlily Pond” Claude Monet

I have always appreciated paintings, but I don’t believe I ever really was absorbed by them until I visited the National Gallery of Art in Trafalgar Square in London.   How does one describe the experience of seeing great works of art that have been around for hundreds of years?  How does one describe the reality of finally seeing a real Monet for the first time when a print of it has hung on your wall for years?

I think I can only describe it as a sort of reverence.  Masterful pieces of art, hanging on the walls in front of me, surviving centuries of mankind is a symbol of the beautiful endurance of the soul.

Degas
Degas

Degas, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat…these are names I have grown up with.  Listening to lectures in school, perusing my mother’s books and looking at prints of these paintings were always nice, but I never had more than a casual interest in them.

When I wandered, by chance, into The National Gallery of Art one cold, rainy winter’s day, I found a new appreciation for these paintings.  It had not been the best of days.  Something I had greatly hoped would happen did not appear and I was feeling a little empty and discouraged.  To keep warm and rest for a little while, I walked into the museum and began to wander aimlessly among the crowds.  I sat down in the first room I could find that had space.  I sighed and then I looked up.  I was immediately struck by the immense size and vibrant colors of the paintings.  As I sat there and looked around, I began to feel a sort of awe.

Pierre August Renoir
Pierre August Renoir

Wandering from room to room, my spirits lifted when I realized that I was among the presence of the some of the greatest artists of history. Standing there, gazing into the purples and blues of a Monet or looking at the brush strokes of a Renoir masterpiece, I began to understand that the paintings themselves were imbued with the very spirit of the painter.

I then realized that these paintings had volumes of lessons to teach me.  Patience, endurance, and beauty were just a few of them.  It was almost as if they were speaking “Here I am.  I have withstood centuries of wars, disasters, violence, sadness and the cruelty of mankind to stand before you today as a legacy that beauty is what survives. Though the painter is gone, I stand unconquered.”

Altarpiece from the 1300's
Altarpiece from the 1300’s

It is a lesson that seeps slowly into the soul.  With the passage of time, the events and moments that are remembered most are the moments of courage, strength, beauty and love.

I wandered out of the museum and stood at the entrance overlooking Trafalgar Square.  Artists, students, tourists and workers crossed paths in the business of life.  As I stood there watching the crowds mingle, I realized that I carried with me a new set of eyes.  The masters of the past had reminded me, yet again, to find beauty in the present.  Life…with all its messiness, uncertainty and confusion, is wonderful.

As the rains departed and the last rays of the setting sun colored the sky in gold, rose and deep blue, I smiled.  The emptiness and discouragement were gone and I raised a silent thank you to the heavens for my unconquerable soul.

The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art
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