Chuck and I met 26 years ago next month. In September we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. In the intervening years between meeting and marrying we became friends and fell in love. Shortly before we met, Stephen Sondheim wrote the Broadway musical “Sunday In The Park With George”. We were smitten with it. Song after song moved us; touched us in some deep way. The musical was inspired by Georges Seurat’s spectacular painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. In fact, the painting becomes a scrim in the musical production.
Back in the late 80s, right around the falling in love stage, we began thinking about visiting Seurat’s original painting. We even looked into a weekend plane trip from Massachusetts to Chicago, where the painting resides in a museum. But the cost of such a trip was prohibitive. When we drove across the country from Seattle to the east coast back in 1998, we were pushing to make a deadline. We were very disappointed to find ourselves traveling through Chicago around midnight.
So when the Amtrak adventure began to take shape we realized this might be our best chance. The only potential glitch was the timing. Because the railroad tracks are owned mostly by freight companies, Amtrak passenger trains often have to wait their turn to let long freights have priority. That can mean significant delays. We were lucky. “The Lake Shore Limited” arrived in Chicago on time, leaving us with nearly a four hour layover. We stashed our carry-on luggage in a locker at Union Station and hailed a taxi in the pouring rain.
Next stop: The Art Institute of Chicago.
We stepped out of the warm rain and into the cool serenity of the Art Institute. We paid our admission fee and asked for directions to the painting. In just a few moments we were in the gallery devoted to it and a few of Seurat’s other works. We were overcome. We had dreamed of this moment for almost a quarter century. We sat on a long wooden bench and tried to take it all in. Group after group of elementary school students bustled in with notebooks in one hand, folding stools in the other. They plopped down in front of the enormous image and listened while the docents explained the painting and the magic of pointillism.
I wanted to take a photograph. Chuck found a guard and inquired if non-flash photography was allowed. “Yes”, she replied. I took some photographs. We sat down again; still feeling overwhelmed. The guard looked at us quizzically and we felt compelled to quietly explain how we came to be there. Families walked in and out; individual visitors, many wearing the now common headphones playing the audio tours, stopped, looked and moved on. Most everyone seemed interested. No one seemed quite as taken as we were. But then, very few of them had been looking forward to that moment for such a long time.