Whatever it is, the first encounter with a work of art can make an impact, sometimes altering our perceptions of the world or even changing our lives.
There’s an expression that says you can only make a first impression once. With art, perhaps impressions are cumulative, and every time you see the work, the impression deepens, adding another layer to the relationship.
We asked six staff members to share their initial experiences with works of art that made a lasting impression upon them.
It was the light. That’s what gave me pause when I first came across Pardon in Brittany.
The canvas emits a hushed reverence, depicting people gathered in a religious ceremony, a pilgrimage of penance, under a blush-colored sky. The lights of candles flicker among their white bonnets, like stars twinkling over a blanket of snow.
When I began working at the museum, I used to tell my colleagues that it was one of my favorites, but I soon stopped expressing this intimate fact because I felt that no one else around me shared the same opinion. One day, my brother came to visit the museum. He didn’t say much about what he was seeing but suddenly stopped in front of Pardon in Brittany and said, “Wow, this one is amazing.” I asked him why. “Look at the light,” he responded.
The yellow candlelight gives the painting an ethereal, hopeful quality—every time I look at the work I feel as if I’m looking at something weightless and glowing yet overwhelmed with emotion.
—Rachel Joy Echiverri Rowland, assistant director, Research Center, Academic Engagement and Research
When I first saw this life-sized portrait of a man in decay, it startled me.
I was just five years old, a child, and Picture of Dorian Gray scared me so much that I’d look over my shoulder to make sure it wasn’t following me into the other galleries. When I was in high school, I was drawn to the amazing amount of details: the blood dripping from the hands, eyeballs almost out of their sockets, a glove that has fallen to the floor. Such intense magenta against so much gray.
Albright makes us look at the darker side of things. When I consider the way he purposely focused on human decay and sorrow, I realize how ahead of his time he was. Contemporary art often contains subjects that shock—but not so then. I admire his audacity and that he painted with a great deal of intensity. That thriller power is something I still experience today. I think this intensity is what keeps people wanting to see it.
—Lisa Kucharski, product development coordinator, Museum Shop
I don’t remember what else we saw that day, but I vividly recall this piece.
I was eight years old and visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, with my family. I stumbled across the gallery by myself, I think. The entire surface of the floor was covered in huge, painterly brushstrokes of saturated black. They swirled and overlapped, covering the floor thickly in some areas and thinly in others. On a nearby monitor, a video played of the artist dipping her long hair into a bucket of hair dye and then elegantly and dynamically contorting her body across the floor to sweep her tresses over its surface.
The piece, which I would later learn was Janine Antoni’s Loving Care, evoked the possibility that you could make art using anything, even your body. I loved the way the saturated marks of dye across the floor echoed the visual language I had seen in paintings but also upended it. As a child, I understood only the immediate effect of Loving Care, observing how the intense labor of making the piece was visible, but beautiful—a dance between the artist, the materials, and the space.
—Ginia Shubik Sweeney, director, Interpretation
See works by Janine Antoni in our collection.
Upon first seeing Love of Winter, my eyes danced along the colors, my body lunged forward with the crowd. I was flooded with feelings of mirth.
Many people dislike winters. But my heart squeezes with memories of growing up in Minneapolis, of trees surrounding snowy lakes, of Christmas oranges, of sledding and early-evening streetlights turning the sky purple, of the delight that was the winter solstice, my birthday. Parts of me feel guarded: there are no brown faces, no reflections of myself. Is this for me? I smile, though. It was as if George Bellows was somehow able to capture a snowflake in his hands, maintaining its wonder before it melts. Through this painting, I hold my own snowflake: my childhood, sparkling and lively, never quite melted. Over 100 years since its creation, Love of Winter has nestled its way inside of me, and I hold it close.
—Kloie Rush-Spratt, educator, Learning Partnerships and Resources
When I first encountered him, I wasn’t sure if he was coming or going. Maybe if I observed him from a different angle, I’d know.
Walking Man II, by sculptor Alberto Giacometti, impacted my life significantly the first time I saw it in August of 2022, during my season of depression and solitude. The figure had a very somber look on his face, and I thought it represented a struggling individual like myself very well. It immediately made me feel understood in a way that no object ever had.
The piece almost seemed to be in movement, and when I circled around it, I could tell: the Walking Man was truly in stride. An emotion like joy overcame me, and in one unexpected moment of optimism I decided that he was, in fact, coming and going simultaneously—walking away from his prison and heading toward a new beginning.
I felt like, in making this piece, Giacometti was reaching out to me, reminding me that I could indeed press forward. Upon leaving this encounter, I was so proud to take this joyful feeling with me—proud to be able to see myself in the Walking Man’s journey and have hope for my own.
—Che d‘Arte Shines, hospitality representative, Visitor Engagement
I don’t remember when I first saw Madame Arthur Fontaine in a Pink Shawl, but it wasn’t long after moving to Chicago four years ago.
Initially Édouard Jean Vuillard’s work felt frivolous to me, but three apartments later, I’ve embraced all things decorative. In the painting, I see luxury but also playful dappled patterns and messy boundaries. Though Lady Fontaine felt absent at first, lately what comes to mind is how Vuillard has constructed a private and personal space, angled to exclude windows; it absents the outside world while embracing her presence. It makes me realize how we use the resources available to us to construct spaces that are personal, comfortable, and safe.
Nesting once again, and wondering if I’ve spent too much time at home and on my home, this panting affirms that, like Lady Fontaine, I will soon settle in among the things and people that make up the world of my new place.
—Christine Stringer, engagement communications representative, Member and Visitor Engagement