Spring in New York City has always been a problematical time in terms of weather—drippy, chilly, and increasingly unpredictable. But I am fortunate on this visit to find the dampness a great relief after the deadly dryness and manifold allergies of the Southwest—the region of the country predicted to experience the most serious effects of global warming, and already plunged into the third year of desperate drought. Here in the big, lively, overwhelming city, the fruit trees in Central Park are wreathed in the kind of dim pink bloom I associate with Prendergast paintings, like the small one I saw yesterday in the Metropolitan Museum’s Public Parks and Private Spaces exhibit.
Because I used to bring my oldest son here years ago, where he began to develop his passion for armor in the stately medieval armor hall, I feel as though the giant institution belongs to me, although it is hard to maintain this delusion in the midst of swamping crowds. Still, it persisted long enough for me to cut the line of several hundred people waiting in the dim, rainy day to get in—in spite of angry reprimands by a museum official who only succeeded in turning back a bewildered pair of French people who did not understand what he meant by “Security”—even when he pointed to his eye.
The show in a vast underground gallery of the museum made me homesick for Paris, another place where my heart seems to find a brief harbor. The French have cultivated an appreciation of leisure that we have not yet acquired. The greening of Paris, ordered by Napoleon and conducted by Baron Haussmann, created parks within a ten-minute walk of any city dweller: from the woody confines of Parc Monceau where my granddaughters used to play to the formalities of the Tuileries, and old prints show these pleasure grounds were always frequented. Here, Central Park is so cut up with roadways and traffic that it is hard to find the mossy retreats the Paris parks offer.
And what backgrounds they provided for late nineteenth century ladies in the flounces and furbelows of fashionable attire. “Be sure to bring your needlework,” Claude Monet instructed a sitter since she would be required to hold a pose for hours. The pensive, sad look on many of the hat-shadowed, downturned faces in these paintings seems to communicate the quiet frustration of these beautiful women.
What a contrast to the women in the streets here, sitting alone quite comfortably in overcrowded, noisy restaurants, shouting into cell phones on the street, convening together with beautiful expressions of love and appreciation. We may not have the settings here in this enormous city, but we have earned, and we display, a confidence the ladies of the Impressionist painters could hardly have imagined.
And we still have our flowers.