The woman sits with her arm draped over the back of the chair, the golden threads in the sleeves of her dress shimmering underneath a swath of white tulle. The front of her dress is white and blue with a matching flower pinned to the bodice. Standing beside her is a little girl in orange with a bow in her short, blond hair. They are both holding and looking intently at the book in their hands. It’s as though we are sitting in a chair a few feet away, but they have forgotten we are here.
The painting is entitled “The Reading Lesson” by American Impressionist Mary Cassatt. I saw it and took this photo at the Dallas Museum of Art in June 2018. My husband had been on a business trip in Dallas that week, and I’d joined him for the weekend. We spent several hours exploring the museum.
Ever since my college art appreciation class, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) has been one of my favorite artists. Not only was she one of just three women who exhibited with French Impressionists like Degas and Monet, she was also the only American.
Her paintings often depict intimate scenes from domestic life, showing women seated with and caring for children. Cassatt’s gift of painting lent not only an air of beauty to the scenes she painted but also an air of dignity. That an artist of her caliber would paint the seemingly mundane, ordinary dailiness of home life and raising children elevated those activities in the minds of viewers.
It gave women an opportunity to see themselves and their lives in her art, something perhaps they hadn’t had before. It infused the moments of motherhood with a beauty that is often hard to appreciate when you’re in the middle of them.
Moments with Mary
Years ago, when I was pregnant, a friend gave me a gift that I treasured: A Child’s Book of Lullabies, With Paintings by Mary Cassatt. It’s a tall, thin book with songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Rock-A-Bye, Baby” and paintings on every spread. The art shows mothers with babies and toddlers, feeding, bathing, and holding and cuddling them.
Three years later, between loads of laundry, I would sit on the floor of my little girl’s bedroom and pull out the book. She would stop playing, climb in my lap, and listen. I would show her the paintings, sing the songs, and talk about them with her.
As a newly-divorced single mom, my primary focus was my little girl, and I was profoundly grateful to God for her. Having her helped ground me, shift my focus to someone else (her), and remind me that Jesus would bring beauty out of pain. He gave me the vision to see that those moments with her held meaning that I might have missed otherwise.
The Stuff of Life
Did every minute with my daughter shine like a precious jewel? Not at all. I was often impatient, cranky, tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. When the laundry piled up and the dogs barked incessantly, when it was time to make dinner and one of us was having a meltdown, I wasn’t thinking about meaningful moments. I was just thinking about making it to bedtime—hers and mine.
There were other days that seemed long and monotonous, when the clock ticked slowly, our routine was too routine, and the lullabies worked better on me than her.
Most of us tend to think that daily life is boring and ordinary. We can be lulled to sleep by a sense of the dullness of routine. For you, it might be the commute to work, the weekly staff meeting, emails you have to return, errands to run. For me, it’s work and email, cooking and grocery shopping.
These are the things that make up daily life, though, and if we aren’t careful, we can drift along without noticing that life is passing by.
Longing for More
In a fast-paced, fractured world, we long for moments of meaning. Art can remind us to look for them, by showing that something as simple as a reading lesson can be loaded with beauty.
When we recognize those special moments, we sense a transcendent, timeless quality that we don’t want to end. We can’t hold onto them, but we can be sure that God is there with us—when the mundane becomes meaningful and the ordinary, extraordinary.
Freelance writer and speaker LeAnne Martin looks for the beauty around us and encourages others to do the same. Through her words and pictures, she shares glimpses of beauty in nature, the arts, and the unexpected on her blog, Glimsen. Sign up to receive her weekly posts, and you’ll get a free gift of beauty in your inbox. You can also connect with LeAnne on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. LeAnne lives with her husband in a wooded neighborhood outside Atlanta and looks forward to her next FaceTime with her daughter in college.