A Memoir of the Renoir


Renoir painted A Girl with a Watering Can in 1876, and the painting hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (You can see a full photo of it at the National Gallery website here.) I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside D.C., and spent my childhood summers trailing around the Smithsonian’s numerous buildings, the National Gallery of Art, the White House, and other historic public buildings and museums after my mother, who was avid about exposing her children to culture. My favorite place was Dinosaur Hall at the Museum of Natural History, and anything that involved getting to run around outside at the National Mall. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is not a shopping center.)

My mother was raised on a dusty farm outside a small town in Oklahoma, but she was born with silver tea services and fine china dancing in her head, so she got out of there as soon as she could. I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but the family moved to Silver Spring when I was two and my father, a Church of Christ minister, began preaching at a large congregation in D.C. My mother took full advantage of the location, constantly dragging her young children all over Washington, training us to whisper inside important buildings and to stare at paintings like Renoir’s A Girl in a Watering Can as if we cared when all we wanted to do was go back to the dinosaurs. Being one of the largest churches in D.C., numerous ambassadors, Congressmen, and other important people attended the church, and we would therefore get special entree for even more tedious touring opportunities inside Congressional offices and ambassador’s residences. Most big touring days were broken by a picnic on the Mall, which was second best after the dinosaurs.

All this to say, this was the world of my childhood until I was eight, when we made a bizarre 10-month move to Alabama, where we lived in a genuine antebellum mansion. I never understood this move until I was in my 30s. I had been FIRED from my middle school English teaching job (I didn’t have tenure yet, and the principal had discovered that I was applying for high school positions, so he didn’t renew my contract), and my father called me and told me that he had been fired once, too. That phone call completely explained our bizarre and sudden move to Alabama, leaving what was probably my mother’s favorite time period in her entire life in which she got to throw big parties entertaining Washington dignitaries. Most likely, the fabulous antebellum mansion made up for it, at least temporarily. (The church in Alabama owned the mansion and used it for their preacher’s home.) But ten months later, my mother just couldn’t take this life in the sticks (mansion notwithstanding) and my father moved the family back to Silver Spring WITH NO JOB, working for a time as a life insurance salesman. Soon, he was helping a small church in Martinsburg, West Virginia, which had no preacher, get back on its feet. My mother would have sooner died than move to Martinsburg, of course, so we made the long drive every Friday after school to spend the weekend, driving back Sunday after evening services. It was during this time that I got to eat a lot of really good food because the church members took turns taking us home between services on Sunday. They all had big gardens and put out a feast every time. Eventually, my father got a preaching job at a suitably large congregation in Falls Church, Virginia. (We remained in Silver Spring, but at least Falls Church was in decent driving distance.) My mother pulled out the silver and started entertaining again.

Back to the Renoir. My mother always threw big birthday parties for me, and my first grade party was no exception. I could really rake in the toys at these events. I was in the midst of ripping into packages when I opened one and pulled out a sturdy, ready-to-hang, laminated print of A Girl with a Watering Can. It was a stunningly odd choice for a seven-year-old, and I distinctly remember it as one of the most singularly disappointing gifts of my childhood. Where’s the beef? The look in my mother’s eyes kept me in line as I thanked the child who gave it to me and moved on to the next package, praying it was a toy. The child who gave it to me was probably as disappointed in their parent’s choice as I was. Not that I really needed any more toys, but just in case you’re shopping for a seven-year-old today, let me tell you that a print of a work of art is going to be a letdown when they unwrap.

However, this print always hung in my room as I was growing up. I’m sure at first at my mother’s insistence, and later out of habit. When I grew up and moved away, I took it with me. Over the years, in various places I’ve lived, it’s hung in hallways and bathrooms. I’ve never really known what to do with it or been particularly attached to it other than out of habit. Often, it has simply sat in the back of a closet. I took it with me to the slanted little house, and when I moved to Stringtown Rising, I left it at the old farmhouse, one of a few things I never bothered to move.

After I painted my bedroom here at Sassafras Farm, a bedroom–and a home–that is all my own–I experienced a sudden urge for the Renoir print. I stopped by the old farmhouse yesterday, retrieved it from the cobwebbed corner I’d left it in nearly four years ago, cleaned it up, and hung it on the wall in my bedroom.

All these years later, I can assure you that it is the only thing still in my possession from my first grade birthday party. Maybe if you’re shopping for a seven-year-old today, you should get them a print of a work of art.

But if you do, bear in mind that you may have to wait forty years for them to appreciate it.

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on December 17, 2011  

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19 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 12-17

    Suzanne, that is a lovely story about your childhood days and your parents. I am so glad that you still have your picture to enjoy. So many things get lost in moving.

  2. 12-17

    You have lived a lot of places! I have lived in the same county all my life. I can see a child not being pleased with a painting but you chose to keep it and she is quite beautiful and looks very well on your new bedroom wall. I love Renoir! :happyflower:

  3. 12-17

    Just goes to show how sometimes a disappointment can turn out to be a blessing and a comfort! But then…you know that. ;-)

  4. 12-17

    I, for one, am glad for that gift of art when you were so young. But I am a lover of Renoir. That you have hung this in your bedroom where you can look at her daily and remember a lifetime of memories is truly a blessing.

  5. 12-17

    BTW, I , too, was a Mom that dragged her sons to museums of fine art.

  6. 12-17

    Loved this post.

  7. 12-17

    I have always liked that painting. I think you should find a nice old frame for her. Funny the things we keep from childhood. I have a doll, a handmade one that is a sock doll, only it is a clown- not all colored and decorated, just with a big baggy outfit and a pointy hat. My kids are grown but neither like clowns… so I can’t pass it on to them.
    So I keep it… I love it and guess it will go with me when I go to heaven.

    Art is always a good influence.

  8. 12-17

    Awww! What a lovely story! Suzanne, I think you and the little girl favor one another, so maybe this is why it was chosen for you? I have a few things from my childhood that I never really cared for or thought too much about until my children started talking about making grandbabies. So maybe one day you’ll have a grand-daughter, who will tell her own children “Let me tell you a story about Granny Suzanny and the “Little Girl” :-)

  9. 12-17

    Maybe looking at that little girl in a garden with a watering can is what planted the idea of farming in your head!

    I too love Renoir, like Yankee in NC. I think he is one of the best painters of people to ever lift a brush. I agree with smiledarlin – you should try to find a nice old frame to set it off. It’s lovely, and so great to have a concrete connection going all the way back to first grade!

  10. 12-17

    I love that little girl, and I love Renoir (my mom’s legacy, too), and I love the National Gallery. No print does justice to the luscious greens and vibrant blues of the original. They just take your breath away.

  11. 12-17

    I think it’s a lovely painting to have in the house, really good art (yes even prints) fit themselves into nearly any decor, and having it would be a constant that you can carry with you wherever you go.

    I somehow got the museum gene even though my parents didn’t exactly push it, though they certainly didn’t discourage it either. I love D.C. and all the Smithsonian buildings. I actually got locked in one time because I was STILL LOOKING and ignored the announcements and even the dimming lights. The guard who escorted me out was very nice, but man was I in trouble with the teacher! (class trip) I must have been about 10 or 11 years old.

  12. 12-17

    I enjoyed reading this snippet about your years growing up. It was fun to learn that your dad was a C of C preacher and the roads that took your family down.

  13. 12-17

    Wonderful post, Suzanne. I’d like to think that the mom that chose the image for you saw something in you that made the painting appropriate. Certainly there is something mystical about your carrying this image—of which you were not extraordinarily fond— from place to place, so that it could grace this new place, YOUR place. It would seem both you and the Girl with the Watering Can have both found a home.

  14. 12-17

    I see someone else thinks the little girl looks like you too and the watering can just tops it off. Thanks for sharing the beginning and the end of the story.

  15. 12-17

    Hey, you lived in Falls Church as a kid? I grew up there! You’d think a place just outside DC would have more recognition, but I rarely run into people who’ve heard of it. Whereabouts were you?

  16. 12-17

    wtrmllngirl, I didn’t live in Falls Church. We just went to church there. It was the big Church of Christ in Falls Church. It’s probably still there!

  17. 12-18

    :) A lovely story. I’ll bet you loved the National Mall as a little girl, one giant playground! A great place on a warm spring day to hang out. I too would have been disappointed to receive an art print for my seventh birthday. While growing up , My father drove us annually into NYC to the Metropolitan museum of Art, but it wasn’t until I took a college course in Art Appreciation that I came to like art. My husband courted me in Washington, D.C., and one of the memorable places we saw a Renoir is at The Phillips collection, for the original “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. :turtle:
    Yesterday, I didn’t realize I needed to log in. I cooked one of the Farm Bell recipes and downloaded some others.

  18. 12-18

    I loved this post, probably because I can identify on so many fronts. I was born when my Daddy was in college…studying to be a minister of music, so I was a kid who grew up ‘on staff’ in a number of churches. First is was seminary in Ft. Worth and serve in little churches on the weekend (read drive back and forth here), then bigger churches and different locations until I was in jr. high and my Dad and Mom split up and Daddy stopped working in churches. Because his masters was in choral music, instead of museums I was often exposed to symphonies, orchestras, etc…..although there were quite a few museums thrown in for good measure. My Daddy came from a small town in Oklahoma and my Mom from the Ozarks so I think that they wanted the bigger world view for me. I live today in my 25th house….I know this because of my security clearance application years ago when I had to list them……Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, California, Hawaii, and for many years now, New Jersey. I’m a federal employee and my agency’s headquarters is just behind the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum so over the years here on the East Coast I’ve had opportunity to appreciate many of the D.C. area museums (and yes, drag my girls through them…..) The Mall is the absolutely best place in the world for a walk! When I am there on business I stay at a particular hotel next to the National Archives just so I can walk to the Washington Monument and back along the Mall. Still…..I’m happy to live in a little village in the Pinelands Reserve of New Jersey on my two acre “farm”. It’s like having the best of both worlds. 1 hour from Philadelphia, 2 hours to New York City, 3 hours to Baltimore, 4 hours to D.C……and yet, almost Mayberry ;) Love having a foot in both camps! Enjoy your print. I especially love that one…..

  19. 12-18

    Isn’t it funny how our tastes change as we get older…we appreciate things we took for granted years before. So many times over the last few years I have remembered things that I got rid of and kick myself for it. I think that’s wonderful that you kept that painting all those years and now it has a place of honor in your very own bedroom. It’s finally home and so are you.

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