But while in Paris on business soon after, I stopped off at the Musée d'Orsay to view the Impressionist paintings. There, among the walls lined with Monets and Manets, was a room dedicated to van Gogh. Room 35, on the fifth level, to be precise. And there hung The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise. Only the real thing wasn't some drab portrait, but a dramatic rendering of a misshapen Gothic cathedral ringed by bubbling moats of lava and wildflowers. The sky wasn't black at all, but an unholy shade of blue that I had only seen in nature. And the paint was applied so thickly that it seemed as if the whole complex image was going to leap off the canvas.
Suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I got art. It had nothing to do with pretty paintings. Rather, it was like a punch in the gut, a sensation so palpable and emotionally charged that I could not look away. I stared at The Church for a very long time that day. This led to a deeper appreciation of not just the Monets and Manets, but also of underrated artists like Turner (whose Rain, Steam and Speed is a work of pure brilliance) and Pissarro. And, thanks to the visceral power of that painting, I also learned that art is subjective. I like what I like, even if it doesn't match someone else's taste - and that's okay. It's rather freeing to walk into a museum and stare at a painting that I enjoy, unhindered by concerns over whether or not a more advanced art connoisseur might think me a Philistine.
I returned to the Musée d'Orsay on a gray afternoon. It is a former train station located on the banks of the Seine, just a short walk from the more famous and traditional Louvre. The massive open spaces of the bottom floors are given to statuary and oversize paintings. I took the escalator up to the fifth level, where the Impressionists are displayed. In my hand was a map of the museum, showing the rooms where specific works of art could be seen. But I wanted to be surprised and so I did not consult it. I wanted to see if the van Gogh paintings would exert that same raw emotional tug when I chanced upon them.
Cézanne was the first artist on display. His pale, literal pastels would prove to be a warm-up for the bright blues and vivid yellows favored by van Gogh. I wandered from room to room, not studying every painting in depth (there were just too many), focusing only on those that caught my eye. Soon I was in Room 35, a rectangular space perhaps 30 by 40 feet. The walls were beige and gray, as was the floor. Natural light filtered in from skylights. The van Goghs didn't disappoint. It would have been horrible if they had - traveling all that way to relive a memory, only to find out that it was just an invention created by time.
There were 16 on display, though just two were painted during his years in Paris. The room was jammed with schoolkids and tourists. More than one spectator was holding a camera phone up close to a painting to take a quick photo. I moved slowly from painting to painting. My personal favorite on this trip was The Siesta. It featured a man and wife napping in the shadow of a haystack following the harvest. Maybe it was the colors, maybe it was the way I felt transported to a sunny pasture somewhere in the south of France, but it was mesmerizing.
I lingered for another few hours in the Musée d'Orsay, then wandered over to the Louvre, where I spent the rest of the afternoon.