We were in Paris last week, and in preparation for our trip, I had been reading my girls a lot of books about artists. We’d started with a book called The Magical Garden of Claude Monet that came in a BabbaBox last year. Monet had also featured in a book given to us by friends on our previous trip to Paris, Katie Meets the Impressionists, so I added another book from that series to our collection, Katie and the Waterlily Pond. We also read a couple about Van Gogh, one about Matisse and his stained glass, and one about Degas. In the Katie books, the little girl jumps in and out of paintings every time her grandmother takes her to a museum. Laurence Anholt’s series tell stories about real people the artists new. I prefer the Anholt books, and my kids love all of them.
Last year when we went to Europe, neither one of my kids was particularly interested in art museums, but I could see a sort of spark of interest in Adriana when we went to the Orsay Museum. She was liked seeing paintings she recognized from books, and was willing to sit and study them a bit. I hoped that all the reading we’d been doing the past couple of months would make museums more interesting for her this time and it worked.
On our first day in Paris, we went to the Musee de l'Orangerie. The girls were excited to see the huge paintings of waterlilies. It was fun to watch Lyra circling the two rooms counting how many waterlilies she saw (although I did find out just how well the galleries echoed as she screamed in rage when I grabbed her away just as she was about to touch one of the paintings), and Adriana reading from our guide book about each painting and then looking up to examine them to see if the book was right. “These are really the paintings from the book about Julie,” she told me several times, awed.
Adriana learned about Cezanne's still lifes in school this year, so even though I hadn’t found any children’s books about him (Anholt does have one that I’ll probably get soon), we went downstairs to look, and we found the one that she and her classmates had all painted their own versions of in watercolor. She was thrilled with that, so we walked through all the other rooms too. I pointed out Renoir and Matisse to her, since she would recognize the names from our books. Adriana was amazing. I watched her walk up close to paintings andy carefully examine the brushstrokes, and then step back to look at the picture as a whole. We saw a Picasso still life (this one), and I asked Adriana if she could tell me how it was different from the Cezanne still lifes, and she was able to articulate that it looked flatter, less colorful, less realistic. And then without prompting she pointed out that another still life we saw (maybe by Derain?) was even more realistic than Cezanne and "you can't see the brush strokes as much." It's so fascinating to me to see her take an interest in this. I marveled that her teacher decided to teach a room full of five- and six-year-olds about Cezanne (and I believe they did O’Keeffe-style flowers earlier in the school year as well), and that there was something about that which really seemed to stick with Adriana. She found a postcard of the Cezanne painting to mail to her teacher, and picked a waterlilies postcard for her grandparents.
It was a week of Monet. We visited Monet’s house at Giverny. The girls were gleeful when they saw the waterlily pond. Adriana posed on the bridge, “just like Katie on the cover of the book,” and Lyra wished to go for a row in the boat “just like Julie.” We lucked into a bench right by the pond, and the girls took out their notebooks and markers and began to draw. “I feel like a real artist,” Adriana told me as we walked toward the house afterwards. And when we went into Monet’s house and we saw the dining room just as Anholt had drawn it in The Magical Gardens, they were ecstatic. Adriana took out the book, turned to the proper page, and walked around the room slowly, comparing the illustration with the reality.
On our last day, we made an impromptu trip to the Marmottan Museum. I left Lyra playing in the park with our friends for this trip--she was clearly done with museums, and it was nice for Adriana to get to have a “big girl” activity. I knew she would be excited to see the waterlilies paintings there, and also to get to see that Monet did paint something other than waterlilies, but I didn’t think she’d pay much attention to anything else in the museum. But then I heard another American voice read out loud “Julie Manet,” and realized that the painting in front of me was a portrait of the real girl that the character in The Magical Gardens is based on. Adriana was so amazed I thought she might cry and then as we entered the next room she shouted out “And there’s Julie with her greyhound!” She had been so good and quiet in museums all week that I barely had the heart to remind her to keep her voice low as she ran to get a closer look at the two paintings of the girl and her dog.
We found the big room of Monets, and Adriana admired the paintings. I think she enjoyed seeing the paintings of things other than his gardens (especially those that she picked out as being used as illustrations in our children’s books), though she was still clearly in love with all the waterlilies, and I think she enjoyed seeing the paintings after visiting the gardens. And then she stood for a long time in front of a more abstract painting, done in reds instead of blues and greens. “I think this must be from when he couldn’t see as well,” she told me, unprompted. “That must make a painter very sad. That’s what this one makes me think.”
Such a simple thing to say, but it blew me away. Lyra talks constantly and verbalizing her feelings, telling me everything that pops into her head it seems. Adriana can be harder to figure out; she’s thoughtful and quiet, so when she actually lets me in on what she’s thinking it can blow me away. Who knew this little girl with her ruffled coat and pink backpack was looking at the paintings and considering the feelings of the artist? I felt so lucky to be sitting there with her, getting this peek inside. We pulled out our guidebook then and read that these red paintings were from the time when he first started to go blind. Adriana looked pleased with herself for having figured that out.
Now I’m looking forward to being able to visit more art museums. At first I was thinking that it’s so much prep work, getting the kids interested. But I think reading all those kids’ books actually made me more interested as well. I keep thinking of other museums we may want to visit when we travel, and about getting the girls (well, Adriana at least; Lyra is still only three) up to San Francisco for things at MOMA or the de Young. But I’m going to stick to small museums or at least very specific exhibits. We went to the Louvre on this trip as well. That museum would be overwhelming for me even without two small children. With two small children? We found the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo and got out of there. The best part of the whole experience there was Lyra looking at a statue with the nose broken off and joking, “Someone played ‘got your nose’ and forgot to give that guy his nose back.”