One of the reasons I love paintings is that they can trigger memories, sometimes even more effectively than photographs. Perhaps it is because the artist can bring to the composition his or her feeling about the scene being painted. Furthermore, light can communicate as much as composition. When I saw this painting by the Danish artist Carl Vilhelm Holsoe (1863-1935), it spoke to me immediately. At first, I thought it was because it stimulated the storyteller in me: the girl lives in a house where it is difficult to find enough light to read by. Thus, she has scooted her chair close to a window so that she can read her book. She is a proper girl (tidy braids) in a fine room (the furniture and paintings are just as tidy as she is). Just a tiny corner of her book is revealed.
But then I realized something else: seeing her from behind had pulled me into the scene, as if I was an observer in the room just outside the canvas.
Then, with a shock of recognition, I realized I was also seeing a much younger version of myself.
I am nine. I am living in Japan. I have been told that I must memorize my multiplication tables. I have been seated in front of a Japanese tansu chest and told that I cannot budge until I have them memorized. I spend hours sitting in front of that tansu chest. To this day, every time I see an antique tansu chest my brain clicks into multiplying numbers.
Like the girl in the painting, my hair is kept under control in two tightly woven braids. I have been prescribed eyeglasses by an unscrupulous eye doctor. The eyeglasses make everything I look at blurry. Thus, whenever I can, I remove the eyeglasses so that I can see. The tansu chest is in sharp focus. I can see every grain of wood and the interesting designs on the ironwork.
The painting conjures up another memory from that same time.
So… The problem was that my teacher had been told that I had to wear my glasses. I remember sitting at my desk watching as my teacher illustrated a division problem on the black board. Each time the stick of chalk made contact with the board, a stream of chalk dust fell to the tray below. I remember turning to look out the window, where a flat white cloud floated as if it were a ship in an expanse of blue sea. By then I had learned that I would be leaving Japan soon. I had been told that all of our belongings would be sent by ship to San Francisco. I had been told that we would be flying and it would take most of an entire day to reach California. Strangely, due to the time change, we would arrive in California on the same day we had left Japan. The thought that I’d have to live through a day I dreaded not just once, but twice, felt like a horrible math trick. It made me feel so sad that I felt tears well up. At that very moment, my teacher turned away from the black board and looked directly at me. I remember her saying: “Pamela, please put on your glasses so that you can see the board.”
This memory makes me appreciate the girl in the painting even more. Age 10 to 12 is when children begin to see that adults don’t know everything and that life is complicated. Reading books helps some of us make sense of it all. I think this is the story of this painting: a girl finding a private place to read her book, to shed light on life.
Have you found a painting that conjures up a memory?