NORMA, my wife, had gone back to the rooms where the French Impressionist paintings were hanging, while I stood in front of one of Rembrandt's self-portraits, in the National Gallery in Washington.
The expression on the clever Dutchman's face in this work is at once warm, sly, humorous, and touched with self-knowledge. He manages to smile without a smile, and I expected him to wink at me at any moment.
Up close, one sees the brush strokes and the ingenious blending of colors, all of which cohere inexplicably to lead one to feel the painter's mood, that of a slightly detached but warm and bemused observer.
This was one of those hundreds of rewarding moments that masterful paintings have given me. Had Norma not said yes to my big question decades ago, I doubt if I would have found my own way into the pungent world of pigments, varnish, brushes, canvasses, and other painterly details.
A trained artist and painter herself, my wife has brought me along on a delightful learning trip. After our 30-plus years of visiting exhibits and of gallery-hopping, I feel almost an insider.
It's all been by hand, so to speak. That is, we often go through art exhibits holding hands, wife leading husband patiently and eclectically into the practical side of what it means to study and create visual art.
It's never a lecture, but a series of surprising delights, exclamations, and frequently laughter.
Through Norma, I meet other artists, some of whom have shared generously their concerns, hopes, histories, methods, and even their ideals.
Talking with artists about their work is special indeed. It was eye-opening, if a viewer's pun can be forgiven, to learn why our painter-friend Alice Mongeau works almost exclusively outside. This is largely so she can have all of nature to choose from as she selects the details for her paintings, but also to experience the changing light.
Hearing how artists think about painting or other mediums, one can enter into the world of their art - not theoretically, but simply as a keener appreciator of the dedication, hard work, talent, and exhaustive preparation that are hallmarks of all good painters.
I honestly have not read too much art criticism. I'm more gallery-smart than book-smart in painting. For me, words about art pale before the elements of painting: the infinite shadings of color and light, form, space, composition, genre, and, all important, what the artist's imagination brings to it all.
Each good artist has a unique visual voice, seen in a collection of his or her work, just as each good poet has a distinct voice.
With artists, as with poets, their work is the proof of the pudding. Even when they talk openly about how they create, their power to transform what they perceive is realized, finally, only in their work. And the power of this transformation is vital, because we see what we believe.
Artists are helping us understand this remarkable aspect of experience, helping us not to be afraid to change our own thought about what we are seeing - or what we think we are seeing.