By Jeffrey Overstreet
Even though he’s the dinner party’s special guest—a world-renowned art critic surrounded by giddy art enthusiasts—William Uhde looks bored. These chattering know-it-alls make him visibly uncomfortable. He’s probably hoping to escape back to his quiet apartment, and get back to his work—studying and writing about Picasso and other artists he helped bring to fame.
But then, everything changes. Uhde’s meandering gaze settles on a shadowed corner, and what he sees brings him out of his chair.
We know the treasure buried in that corner; earlier in the movie, we saw the lady of the manor stash her housekeeper’s amateur painting behind a chair. She probably worried that work by someone as uneducated, untrained, and common as her washerwoman would offend her honorable guest’s artistic sensibilities.
But Uhde is not discouraged to learn that the work was painted by a dowdy housecleaner called Séraphine Louis. That information only enhances the thrill of his discovery. In the following days, he strives to get to know this shy, unschooled painter and her work. He invests in the fulfillment of her potential, eager to share her gift with the world.
In time, she’ll become a legend: Séraphine of Senlis (1864-1942).
Watching Martin Provost’s extraordinary movie Séraphine, I felt Uhde’s excitement. For I too was enthralled, both by Séraphine’s art—this is the first time I’ve ever been astonished to tears by a painting—but also by the artist herself.
Played by Yolande Moreau in an exquisite performance, Séraphine is a formidable presence. She has a limited vocabulary and an awkward, corpulent figure. She trudges about in a sort of trance, surfacing only to request the materials she needs for her work or to acknowledge housekeeping instructions as she earns her keep.
Moreau brings the same complexity and texture to her performance that Provost finds in the materials of Séraphine’s world—the filthy floors she scrubs, the rumpled layers of her garments, the colors on her paint-smeared palettes, the chaos of the roaring trees that capture her attention. It hurts to see her suffer insults and loneliness by day, but the fever of Séraphine’s late-night, candle-lit artmaking is a joy to behold. She paints to serve the Virgin Mary, and whenever she nears completion of a work, she begins to sing in a holy ecstasy.
Provost’s film has few equals in depicting the dangerous territory between artistic inspiration and madness. As Séraphine stumbles through that country, Provost seems to suggest that her artistic exhilaration is closely related to poverty. Living in constant humiliation and exhaustion, she knows a powerful longing—one that she expresses in explosive designs. And when her work gains an audience, we realize that fame might uproot her from the soil that nourishes her particular vision.
I suspect that, to some degree, most artists will relate to Séraphine—the exhilaration of her immersive artistic experience, the lack of understanding in those around her. I know I did. Photographer Brett Weston said “Composition is the best way of seeing,” and just as Séraphine’s painting is for her a way of comprehending the wonders she has seen, so I come away from writing exhilarated but also humbled and sometimes troubled by what I’ve discovered.
Sometimes I pray for inspiration before I write, but is that so wise? We’re told that when we see God as he is, we’ll be changed at once. Until then, “the truth must”—as Emily Dickinson explained—“dazzle gradually.” Lightning-strike epiphanies can fracture fragile minds. William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh both knew a holy terror. In Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, the prophet rants from exposure to “too much Kierkegaard.”
Perhaps I should pray for safety instead of revelation.
Nevertheless, while I am moved by Moreau’s glorious performance, it’s Ulrich Tukur’s understated turn as Uhde, the quiet German expatriate, that wins my heart. I’m more familiar with Uhde’s bliss—the joy of stumbling onto treasure in unexpected places—than I am with epiphanies and revelations.
Life becomes exciting when we’re mindful that wonders may be hiding in plain sight. It’s why televisions across the nation tune in to Antiques Roadshow every week.
Sometimes, they’re small and personal. I could have sworn I heard the Hallelujah Chorus when I found a little-known film soundtrack on vinyl—unplayed, unopened—in the racks of Seattle’s labyrinthine Bop Street Records. (I smugly carried it home for only $8.99.)
Sometimes they’re more significant. One day in 1988, I noticed a troubled high-school classmate scribbling, and I asked what she was writing. She shared a sheaf of typewritten poems that scared and shook me—searing images of abuse, rage, heartbreak, and a ferocious longing for healing. It was the beginning of an important conversation for us both.
At the conclusion of Pixar’s Ratatouille—another great film about art—the art critic declares, “Not everyone can cook, but a great chef can come from anywhere.” But great chefs will toil in anonymity unless they’re discovered. The world needs Uhdes as much as it needs Séraphines. And, like artmaking itself, that search takes work. Uhde’s life was a discipline of study and writing about art—especially Picasso. The closer he looked, the better he could see.
Still, the goal is not to become high-scorers in some treasure hunt for art. We’re drawn to the outrageous beauty of her paintings, but Séraphine? She put her arms around a tree, embracing the particulars of a luminous language that surrounds us. Art, if we look closely, can fine-tune the undisciplined instruments of our minds and hearts, thus helping us see life-changing revelation beyond the canvas.
Glimmers of revelation through art, artmaking, and nature have made me an addict of all three. I’m learning to be ready, every day, to find beauty in unexpected places. I want my soul to “stand ajar,” as Dickinson said, ready in every way “to welcome the ecstatic experience,” that I may live in a posture of awe, humility, and gratitude.
Séraphine is one of those experiences. Seek it out.