Painting Flowers



Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Marcy Dermansky looks at Van Gogh’s flowers.

Vincent van Gogh, Oleanders, 1888, oil on canvas, 23 3/4″ x 29″.


It’s a funny thing, being a writer. Sometimes, I don’t want to write. But I always want to create. I want to make art. I want to take my mind off of the inauguration of a president whose name I cannot bear to say, or the fact that I am not writing, or the many small irritations of the day. I want to go to a better place. So, I paint flowers. Honestly, I find this to be a little bit embarrassing. It makes me think almost antifeminist, anti-Marcy like thoughts. Flowers. How cute. Inane. Painting flowers. It is so easy to devalue oneself.

My favorite place to go see art is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This is my favorite museum of all museums. It has always been a special place for me, a place I can always go back to, where I have gone since childhood. I was floored by the audacity of Donna Tartt, who opened The Goldfinch with a nightmarish terrorist attack set in the Met galleries. I often think of that fictional attack when I am there—imagine the smoke and the fear and the smell of burning body parts, as I wander amidst tourists gazing at Dutch masterpieces, oblivious. 

When I go in summer, it usually means a quick trip to the Impressionists and then the elevator to the roof to take in the newest rooftop installation and the dazzling view of Central Park. Two summers ago, up on the roof with my father and daughter, I ordered us three fresh-squeezed lemonades which my father then paid for. He complained bitterly about the cost. Six dollars a lemonade. I ignored him, as I sometimes do. Of course, they were worth it. We sat on a bench and drank one of the world’s most delicious drinks and I felt grateful for where I was in that moment in my life, grateful for the people I was with. I had left my husband not that long ago, and this day at the Met, the simple wonder of it, was reassuring.

On a recent visit, on a bitterly cold day at the end of a tumultuous 2016, my friend Lauren and I walked slowly through the galleries, holding our coats because the coat-check line was so long. We were, for the most part, quiet, occasionally pointing out a painting that we loved. Lauren was on the lookout for finely painted hands. I lingered in front of a famous Degas sculpture, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. I remembered a picture I had taken of this sculpture, my elderly father and young daughter standing next to the bronze dancer. As I stood there in December, I realized that my father will probably never return to the Met. His heart is failing. He can no longer walk long distances.

My leisurely wandering with Lauren took us through the Impressionists, of course, because I always end up back with the Impressionists, never knowing what painting will capture me. This time it was the Van Goghs. The flowers.

As a child, his work didn’t mean much to me. I only knew that Van Gogh was the artist who cut off his ear. And as a child, most art, beyond the mummies in the Egyptian exhibit, did not mean much to me. I went to the Met because my parents took me. A parent myself, I find that I believe we should always take our children to see art, even if they declare museums to be boring. They do not know what is unknowingly sinking in. They have no idea.

Now it felt as if I was seeing Van Gogh’s flowers for the first time. He painted beautiful, wondrous, almost mesmerizing flowers. Irises. Roses. Oleanders. The paint is thick on the canvas, so thick that you can see the swirls of the petals rising, almost alive.

While I have a graduate degree in writing, I don’t have any training in fine arts. Just that desire to create, to make something beautiful. I started with my daughter’s crayons and then boldly moved on to watercolors. Gazing at Van Gogh’s flowers, I thought, I want to try this. I want to know what it is like to paint with oil. To paint on canvas not paper. To spread the paint as thick as I can and see what I might make.


Marcy Dermansky is the author of the novels Bad MarieTwins, and most recently The Red Car