Surprised by Joy


When I first visited Paris, the Louvre seemed too huge so I decided to start with a smaller museum. It was the Jeu de Paume, almost hidden by trees, built to house a tennis court for Napoleon II, smack on the busy counter-clockwise dodge-em-car traffic of the Place de la Concorde. From the guidebook I recalled only that the Jeu de Paume housed modern paintings, whatever that might mean.

There are moments when you are surprised, not by a peril but by a delight. Survivors recall moments of danger, the circumstance when scenes from your whole life are said to flicker by: you may not have an opportunity ever to remember again. What are less celebrated in folklore are moments of being surprised by delight. If you expect the experience some intensity is lost. Often it is called “ineffable” and half-forgotten.

Entering the Jeu de Paume was a moment of utter magic for me. I had seen some reproductions of impressionist paintings. I had even seen some actual canvases in New York and London. But in the Jeu de Paume it was as if I were surrounded, as if I’d entered not a gallery but a garden, a garden more intense and sparkling than the Tuileries outside.

It was not that all the paintings were of plants. Many were of street scenes, railway stations, rural life, people. It was the light, the light as light as a bird’s chest feather. And the decomposition of objects into particles. I felt transported as I have a few other times, such as running with albino deer on Point Reyes in California, meeting with the other side in Moscow, or playing a “strike it rich” game with friends in Hawaii.

Today the Jeu de Paume is dedicated to photographs, and paintings once there are to be found in the former Gare d”Orsay, including Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Van Gogh.

Surprises await everywhere.

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