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A frustratingly low resolution version of Thomas Hill’s “Picnic by the Sea”

Sometimes I have this feeling that is part angst and part inspiration that leads me to want to get a little more life out of a given day. I have lived a long and full day, but I want a little more connection, a little more vitality, a little more beauty, before I go to sleep. This happened a few weeks ago, and so I googled Hudson River Valley School paintings and looked through the search results.

After clicking through images of spectacular sunsets, cliffs, waterfalls and arctic explorations, some of them familiar to me, I was struck by a painting I had never seen before. Charles Hill’s “Picnic by the Sea” shows a small group of people calmly picnicking in the bottom right corner of the painting while the rest of the painting shows the ocean loudly crashing into rocks and cliffs right next to them.

The audacity, I thought. These people are calmly going about everyday human recreation as this awesome and raging sea dominates the landscape. I don’t know if I have ever seen a work of art of any type so evocatively capture this fundamental reality of being human. Here we are in this mighty and chaotic universe, and in this small corner of the painting, there are the humans, picnicking.

I often think about how in the American society I grew up in and inhabit, we hide from ourselves the extent to which the universe is out of control, chaotic and more powerful than us. We cloister death outside of what we encounter in our everyday life, and from the clean linoleum floors of our chain restaurants to our engrossing TV shows, worrying about the chaotic nature of the universe would generally come across as…odd. 

That night two weeks ago, after I first found a low resolution version of the image, I googled furiously to try to get a better look at the painting. I soon discovered that it isn’t actually a Hudson River Valley school painting — Charles Hill came later, mostly painted the West, and this painting is obscure and only available in high resolution on stock image websites that charge a handsome fee.

But never mind that; two weeks ago as I wanted a little more out of my day, and now as I reflect on this beautiful painting, I am reminded that despite the terror and complexity of the world, sometimes we get it, and we humans have the gall to just spread out our blanket, and picnic.  

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