How To Visit An Art Museum

Give a voice to the voiceless!

Unless you are a culture vulture like I am, you probably haven’t been to an art museum in ages, if ever. The fact is, most people are bored stiff by the very idea. In the past week, I have figured out that those who do go are doing the museums all wrong, and when they give their verdict to their friends, an entire community loses interest. As usual, I am here to right the wrongs of a cold and ignorant world.

Last weekend, I had a mini-family reunion in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs — my parents had flown in from Phoenix to visit my 95-year-old aunt who lives in McLean. As it turns out, I have a cousin, Carol Russell, who is a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and she offered to take those of us interested on a tour. So Saturday morning, Cousin Carol led my parents, my wife and me through the museum.

She started by announcing that we were going to look specifically at five paintings. That right there is different from how most people do a museum. The National occupies space along Constitution Avenue from 3rd Street to 9th Street. The West Building where we were sits between 4th and 7th. Needless to say, if you try to see everything, you’ll wind up overwhelmed and see nothing at all.

jeff da vinciSo we started with the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci seen at left. Carol told us that the girl was betrothed to an older rich guy and that she was about 16 when the painting was done as a way for her family to remember her. We learned that the outdoors background was a new development; portraits were painted indoors then. The juniper bushes behind her are both a cognate of her name and an Italian symbol of chastity. The light and shadow typical of da Vinci’s works were revolutionary. Moreover, on the back of the painting was painted a wreath of laurel (symbolizing the artistic inclinations of the subject), palm (moral virtue) and juniper (chastity again) as well as a scroll which reads “virtutem forma decorat” (“beauty adorns virtue”). Finally, there was a wax seal on the back.

Here’s where having a tour guide pays off, especially one who had to study for a year and take a test simply to volunteer. That wax seal was put there by the Principality of Liechtenstein, which owned it for many years. In 1967, Prince Hans-Adam was getting married and the royal family sold the painting to the National Gallery of Art for $5 million to help pay the costs. That doesn’t appear in the guidebooks, nor on the National’s website.

And no, your tax dollars did not go to purchase it. None of the National’s collection is paid for with tax money. Private donations of cash fund acquisitions, and once a piece is in the collection, it stays there. Unlike other museums, the National doesn’t sell off anything.

jeff madonna
Raphael’s ‘Alba Madonna’ (photo by Jeff Myhre)

After that, it was time for a Raphael, his “Alba Madonna.” The National’s website says, “Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist are linked — by gaze, pose, and understanding — as they contemplate the cross Jesus takes in his hand. With calm gravity they apprehend the gesture’s significance: in this moment all see and accept Christ’s future sacrifice. But the limitlessness of the circular panel, its clear colors, and the Virgin’s radiant beauty hold out the promise of Grace.” Cousin Carol pointed out that Mary is sitting in a way no one can actually sit in, but that pose creates compositional balance. And Mary is often in blue in paintings of this era because blue was very expensive, and the Mother of God deserves the best.

jeff david napoleonAnother painting we studied was Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon in His Study at Tuileries,” seen at right. At first, it’s a painting of the Great Man, or, if you prefer, of the Monster, standing at his desk. But on closer inspection (from a rather comfortable and well-positioned couch), you see its pure propaganda. Napoleon needs a shave, the candles are burned to almost nothing, his white trousers are not really all that clean, the clock reads 4:20 or so. The poor bastard’s been up all night slaving away for the French people! And that’s how David wound up as the court painter during the First Empire.

There was time to look at other works (e.g., Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington that was on the cover of your American Government textbook, or Dali’s “Last Supper,” which hangs by the gift shop bathrooms) after we got through the set pieces, and the National is astonishing. At the gift shop, there were prints (plain, matted and framed) of all the paintings my cousin talked about reinforcing the fact that these were, indeed, important pieces of civilization.

So, here’s your homework: Pick an art museum, pick five paintings (or fewer), go to the museum, get a guide to show them to you. Or if you’re cheap (I’m guilty, too), read up on them in advance. If you still don’t get art museums, you are excused from here on.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

Give a voice to the voiceless!

One Comment

Leave a Reply

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    ‘Whitey’ Doc Questions Myth of Boston Crime Lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger

    The 10 Best Cult Actresses Of All Time