The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh: In Memory Of My Father

Since April 2015, the month in which I began to blog, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on these pages, a fact that pretty well blows my mind. I doubt if I churned out that much product during my high school and collegiate careers combined. Luckily I’ve enjoyed doing the writing, and plan to keep on truckin’.

As Father’s Day 2016 approached I wondered what new article, in memory of my father, I might compose. After some thought I decided to republish the essay that I penned for last year’s Father’s Day. It is titled The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh. There’s something about this story that gets to me. I hope it will do the same for you, whether you’ve read it before or not. Here it is:

 

My father came to live with me and my wife Sandy in Philadelphia soon after his 90th birthday, in 1999. He had been living alone on Long Island, but health issues necessitated his relocation. Good doctoring in the Philadelphia suburbs improved his physical condition quickly, but there was no cure for the declining state of his kidneys. He became a dialysis patient one year after he moved in with us, and he remained on dialysis till his death in 2005 at age 96.

My father was in pretty good shape until the final nine or so months of his life. He loved getting out of the house and joining Sandy and me and others at restaurants, concerts, museums, you name it. On this Father’s Day I’ll relate one incident that I look back on fondly. It was the day that he and I and my brother had a private viewing of a rarely-seen Van Gogh oil painting at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
There are several known photographs of Vincent van Gogh, though they are not fully authenticated. This photo is believed to be from about 1886.

Vincent van Gogh is one of my two favorite artists. The other is Paul Cézanne. I never can decide which of the two I like best. For wordsmanship, however, I go with Vincent. In spring 2001 I read all 800+ of his mesmerizing letters, in their English translation. My father got a kick from this. He told people that I was becoming a Van Gogh expert, which was hardly the case. But my semi-obsession with Van Gogh was rock solid, and it is here that the story really begins.

One day in January 2002 I poked around some Van Gogh websites and discovered that the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which Sandy and my father and I frequented, owned five Van Gogh oils. Yet, I had never seen more than four of them on display there. The painting that I wasn’t familiar with was Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Most experts believe that Vincent painted it in summer 1886, a few months after he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and to contemplate the new techniques and perspectives, most notably those of Impressionism, that had been invigorating the French art scene. Why wasn’t the painting on display? I needed to know.

A few days later, from my desk at work, I dialed the museum and got connected to an assistant curator. I asked about the mystery painting. She told me that the museum did occasionally bring it from storage to the public galleries, but that it had been a long time since that had happened. We chatted a little and then I said thanks and was about to hang up. But before I could the curator asked “Would you like to see it?” Huh? Huh? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yes ma’am, I would.

My father was about to turn 93, on January 19, 2002. A few days before that, to help our dad celebrate his birthday, my brother Richard planned to fly to Philadelphia from his California home. I explained this to the curator and asked her if my brother and father could come along with me (Sandy, chained to her job, wasn’t free to get mid-day time off from work). Sure, she said. Fairly stunned, I set the date for Friday January 18, a non-dialysis day. I knew that something special had just occurred.

The momentous day arrived. We drove to the museum and were met in the west wing by the curator. She was a lively and lovely person and probably was getting as big a charge out of the situation as anyone. Down an elevator we all went to one level of the museum’s cavernous underbelly. We followed our hostess along a long corridor, walking past many locked rooms. At our consecrated storage area she unlocked the door and we entered. Perpendicular to one of the room’s sides were very large moveable display panels. All of them were in their retracted positions. The curator pulled out one of the panels, both sides of which were covered with paintings, maybe 20 per side. I noticed a Chagall on the side facing us. Can’t recall what else. Except of course for a work near the left edge on the top row. The Van Gogh.

Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies.
Copyright Philadelphia Museum Of Art

It was show time. The curator wheeled over a tall moveable step ladder. Richie and I went up first. What did I make of Vincent’s oil? Well, Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies doesn’t have the brilliant color schemes that Vincent was developing in Paris. It is dark, with lots of deepened greens. Maybe that’s why the museum doesn’t bring it out of storage too often. But they should. With Vincent, there’s always something to admire. I took in his trademark broad brush strokes, the intense tangles of flower stems. The greens upon greens.

Richie and I and our benefactor were excited and happy for my father when his turn came. My dad was excited and happy too, a muted gleeful smile on his face, his eyes on alert. I’m sure he knew how lucky he was to do what he was about to do. Holding the ladder rails carefully, up he climbed. Admirable mobility for a guy one day away from the big 93. He gazed at the painting for a good long spell, longer I think than my brother or I had. He spouted words of admiration. He was having a ball. Finally he came back down. Thank you, thank you, thank you we said to the wonderful curator.

Over the following years, my father and brother and I talked about our museum visit many times among ourselves and with friends and relatives. Always with a grin. Always feeling a tingle. And so, I dedicate this Father’s Day essay to Hyman Scheinin, he whom I’m sure is the only nonagenarian ever to climb a step ladder to go eye to eye with Van Gogh.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

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31 thoughts on “The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh: In Memory Of My Father

      • fiftywordsdaily June 19, 2016 / 2:49 am

        Seriously – the image of your father examining the painting is so poignant: I think you’ve captured something really important. There’s a bit at the very end of The Dean’s December by Saul Bellow (a book and a writer that have fallen out of favour for understandable reasons) about the Dean going up to look at the stars in an observatory – and your story reminded me of that scene.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Sheldon Rothfarb June 19, 2016 / 1:59 am

    YOUR FATHER IS ALWAYS WITH YOU IN YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS. HE WAS A VERY INTERESTING AND NICE MAN

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joyce June 19, 2016 / 7:42 am

    I do remember the blog from last year and enjoyed it this year as well .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Still the Lucky Few June 19, 2016 / 9:43 am

    I enjoyed this. What is most significant for me is that you took the trouble to include your father and give him this wonderful experience. Our worth can be judged by how we treat our parents( or all elders, in fact). Good on you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tengel265 June 19, 2016 / 10:04 am

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks for giving permission to reblog. I try to look at Van Gogh wherever I find his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brian Lageose June 20, 2016 / 7:25 pm

    You may have already been, but if you ever get the chance to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam it is a truly mesmerizing experience, even with the crowds. And Amsterdam itself is a charming, colorful city with very welcoming citizens.(Oh, and this story was very fine, indeed. I should have started my comments with THAT, but I got overly excited thinking about the museum…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger June 21, 2016 / 2:29 am

      Thanks,Brian. I have been to Amsterdam very recently, coincidentally. I love that city. And the Van Gogh museum, like you say, is great.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Elizabeth M. Soltan June 20, 2016 / 7:45 pm

    Just like a fine piece of art, a well-written essay deserves to be savored again and again.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Terry Marotta June 29, 2016 / 10:55 am

    This is a very nice piece Neil – .and how moving it is to see VG’s dark closeted daisies!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Martin July 11, 2016 / 2:19 am

    A fantastic story. Thank you for sharing such a special moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger July 16, 2016 / 7:54 am

      It was a very memorable day for me.
      Thanks, Muriel, for reading and commenting.

      Like

  9. Blathering September 18, 2016 / 6:33 am

    Thanks for liking a post on my blog – I just popped over to look at yours and I must say, your writing is very engaging. I loved this story, and the image of your 93 year old dad climbing a step ladder to look at a Van Gogh! It’s a lovely memory of your dad, that says a lot about his sense of adventure at an age when some people expect the elderly to sit in a chair and do nothing. I look forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Blathering September 18, 2016 / 5:14 pm

        Since I’ve checked out your blog and I know you can write a good story, I am chuffed to get that praise from you, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

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