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Attendance at the Figge Art Museum during the French Moderns show was greater than the population of Bettendorf.

It is fair to say the exhibition, French Moderns: Monet to Matisse (1850-1950), was a smash.

On Jan. 5, the final Saturday of the show, 1,786 Figge visitors got an eyeful. From the celebrated October arrival of 60 pieces by world-famous artists to its final curtain call on Jan. 6, total attendance was 36,112. (Bettendorf's population is less than 36,000.)

Despite lines that sometimes snaked from the third floor to the lobby during those final days, people waited.

The hope from the beginning was that people would come out in droves. The Impressionists, after all, are some of the most accessible artists in a trade that often feels out of reach or stuffy. But many of us have seen some of the Impressionist paintings all our lives — in classrooms and textbooks, on calendars and posters. 

Seeing the real thing is entirely different.

Standing within a few inches of a master's brush stroke is not unlike growing up listening to James Taylor, then sitting in a seat at the Taxslayer Center while he sings to you from the stage. When something you have admired from afar for most of your life is suddenly before you, the perspective changes everything.

It's impossible to nail down a number, but it's a good bet that many who made a point of seeing the French Moderns during its final two weeks did so because admission was free. Close to one-third of the total visitors, 13,434, took in the show during the free period.

But it wasn't free for everyone. It was underwritten by Quad-City businessman Hunt Harris and his wife, Diane, through their family foundation.

Why?

"When Diane and I travel we often visit art museums and particularly enjoy the Impressionists," Harris said. "Neither of us has an art background ... we know what we like and are trying to learn more about art as we get more exposure.

"Many folks don’t have the opportunity to travel as we do, nor the desire to visit art museums when they do. When we learned of the chance to bring some of these great paintings to the Quad-Cities, we were really excited to be part of exposing people in our area to these works."

There was another reason.

"... many Quad-Citians have never set foot in the Figge," Harris said. "Perhaps they don’t think they particularly enjoy art, or they are intimidated to go to an art museum. Hopefully, having been once, they will return and find that it is not an intimidating place that only welcomes art connoisseurs."

And it worked.

In a note to the Harrises, one first-timer to the Figge acknowledged seeing the French Moderns because it was free. That person reported being "mesmerized" by the art, saying "eyes were opened" to the "jewel" that is the Figge and vowed to return.

Tim Schiffer, the museum's executive director, referred to the Harrises' gift as "the icing on the cake," adding that the Figge sold more than 350 memberships during the show's run. The museum now has about 25 percent more members, he said.

"Overall, I would say that the exhibition was transformational for the Figge," he said. 

When I mentioned Wednesday that the piece by Jules Breton, "The End of the Working Day," had been my favorite, Schiffer said it had not yet been removed from the gallery, and I was welcome to come have one last look.

It may sound silly, but I couldn't bear it.

It will surprise no one more than it did me to know that I became emotionally attached to a painting. But two things moved me about the portrayal of three women returning from the potato fields after a day of labor.

First, I learned that Breton had a soft spot for peasant women. He used his paintings to elevate their value and their worth. But that's not why I was instantly taken by it.

Simply by gazing upon the wall on which it hung, I was there in the potato field. I could hear the shovels clang together as one of the workers carried them under her arm, and I could smell the dirt in the air. But the real stunner is the sun — how it hangs low in the sky; its rays like long fingers, tapping gently upon the earth.

A human being dabbed oil paint onto a brush, then dabbed it against a canvas. And 132 years later, his sunset made me weep.

The Figge. The Harrises. Art. Our fortune.

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