What a Painting Showed Me About Memory

Can I impart visceral memory through words?

Can any combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs communicate how the breeze would brush my face or how the creek and the trees built a symphony of leaves swaying in the hot summer wind and water rushing in the cool of the shade? Even if you and I spoke side by side as we walked along that trail on Cane Creek in the narrow mountain valley, I could not share it with you—that first walk I took on it fifteen years ago, the emotions I felt, or the experiences I processed while walking the trail during humid camp summers. The words I use will merely prompt you to build your own picture from your own experience and memory. Walking with you along the trail will create a new memory altogether.

Therefore I will hold my memory close, and your friendship closer. I will share what I can with what words I have; will you share with me the picture you build? Together our imperfect words build a new memory.

I stood in front of a painting for ten minutes or more, tucked in the corner of the gallery as a flood of people moved around me. It had me transfixed: “The Yerres, Effect of Rain” (Gustave Caillebotte, 1875). I smelled the rain-washed earth. I heard the rushing river and creek. I felt the cool air on my skin. I sensed the peace and quietness. I traveled to that trail along Cane Creek in the heat of summer, the exhaustion, the beauty, the challenge, the peace and quietness.

The Yerres, Rain, 1875 - Gustave Caillebotte

Twenty minutes passed and I kept on breathing in peace; I finally got it—what keeps bringing people back to art. Art evokes memories, emotion, stories, and truth. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” they say. This painting, 160 years old, might communicate my memory more effectively than my meager words. Yet again, you still possess your own reaction, remembered feelings, and experiences. Can I impart visceral memory through this painting?

I’ve shared what I can with the words and picture; will you share what you can with me? Together our remembrances build a new story.

Someday, I will acquire a print of this painting and hang it prominently in my home. It is lovely. It connects my memories of that trail along Cane Creek to that hot D.C. summer when I first stood in front of the Yerres as I grappled with what graduate school might mean. It connects to this moment now in which I write of memories and words and pictures and sharing together.

Can I impart a visceral memory through words or even a painting? I think not. The memory is very much my own, as your reaction and experience of hearing of it are your own. What we create together through sharing experience will join the story. Our collective memory grows stronger and deeper. I hold memory close, and friendship closer.

In-text image via WikiArt.


  • June 20, 2017

    Wesley Freeland

    Really enjoyed this article. Wonderful writing and richly descriptive. Thanks for writing it!

  • July 1, 2017


    As an artist I find this article gratifying and challenging. To think that a painting caused you to stop and stare for that length of time and evoke such strong memories. How I long to be able to accomplish that in my work. Caillebotte is a favorite and this is a work I’ve never seen. Thank you for sharing.