It’s been a long time since I’ve been transfixed in front of a painting. It’s been years since I’ve been so struck by an image that I’ve circled back more than once to drink it in. It’s not that I’ve lost my love of arts or that I haven’t been seeing good exhibitions. I just see a lot of paintings in my line of work, and the awe does tend to wear off after a while. But recently I found myself returning to one painting in particular, lingering in front of it and stepping mentally into its world.
I understand if you aren’t struck by it – after all, pastoral landscapes are far from an original subject – but this Georges Michel painting, undated and simply named Paysage (‘Landscape’) stopped me in my tracks. The scene is quiet, unpopulated, but I can feel its dappled light playing on my hands, its crisp breeze heralding a country storm on my face. The scene is distinctly European, and I grew up in Australia; but somehow the scene reminds me of a place I can’t quite remember, from when I was very young.
This remarkable moment occurred when I visited the Fondation Custodia to see a Michel exhibition. Dedicated to Flemish and Dutch art, the Custodia is a small but beautiful museum in the seventh arrondissement, next to the Assemblée Nationale metro and near the Musée d’Orsay. Lovers of dreamy landscapes would do well to combine the two museums into one art-filled day. The Custodia is also home to an impressive permanent collection of miniature portraits, cameos and drawings on its lower floor, though its airiest rooms are reserved for temporary exhibits.The little-known French painter Georges Michel lived from 1763 to 1843 and spent most of his life in Paris. But the Custodia was doubtless attracted to his work because he drew inspiration from Dutch Masters like Rembrandt, and inspired the Dutch Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh in turn. The Dutch influence reverberates throughout his paintings, all sloping hills, brooding clouds and windswept trees. There are even windmills in a large number of them. More often than not, a storm brews in the background, with distant rain depicted in moody grey strokes linking clouds and earth.
I write this in a little brasserie on the boulevard Saint-German, ten minutes after leaving the Custodia, in my pale blue leather journal over a café allongé. I am seated on a Belle Epoque-style bench, glasses clinking around me, rain pattering outside and on the canvas awning of the terrace. But I am not really here. In my head, I am wandering down a country lane, all by myself, the light filtering through the trees, the sky a mix of moody clouds, a cottage up ahead and the faint rumble of thunder rolling over the hills.