Art museums. Many cities have art museums. In art, we see the best of humanity expressed through the mind and vision of artists from all over the world. They move us, teach us, inspire us. We see love, sorrow, joy, curiosity, madness, genius. The art filled rooms allow us to travel to places we have never been and we leave hoping to see, in our own way, the places that somehow have gained a little familiarity. History comes alive, in the faces of people who have receded into memory but forever remembered in transcendent images of artists who captured a moment in the lives of the people that they knew, even fleetingly, in their lifetimes. Sometimes, we see a character from a book, holy or secular, come to life through the imaginative brilliance of a Rubens or the transcendent luminance of Raphael. We see saints, politicians, kings and queens, emperors, men and women, boys and girls in portraits painted by Rembrandt, El Greco, Cassatt, Picasso, Vermeer. We see the landscapes of Turner and Van Gogh, the flowers of Monet , the dancers of Degas. We see life depicted by Renoir and Cezanne. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, one of the crown jewels of the gallery’s permanent collection, is the only Leonardo portrait in North America. A list of names, known and sometimes unknown, mounted next to countless works of art, to be studied, admired, seen. To be in an art museum is to lose yourself in an ocean of color and creativity.
When I was younger, I went to art museums as part of my elementary or high school class. We were supposed to learn something about a time in history, learn about a particular type of artwork, or perhaps learn something about a particular artist. Like many people dragged to the museum, I didn’t really pay attention to the greatness around me. I came with pad and pencil in hand, made notes (sometimes), tried to remember something that I could write about when that homework assignment inevitably came. I was there in body, but the spirit remained unmoved. I remember shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies going to the National Gallery of Art to look at some paintings by Mark Rothko. My cousin was visiting from out of town and she wanted to see Rothko. Well, she knew what she was looking at. She appreciated the colors and the palettes that she excitedly gazed at. What did I do? I asked the guard, sarcastically, if a painting on a nearby wall was “Orange and Yellow.” A sly smile greeted me as he told me to take a look. Sure enough, it was “Orange and Yellow.” I didn’t get it then. I’m not sure I get it now. They say that art appeals to the soul, but that not everyone is drawn to the same thing or place. Someday, maybe. I keep an open mind.
Rubens, on the other hand, with the great painting “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, is an artist many art lovers truly appreciate. This painting, which is part of the collection at the National Gallery of Art (West Building) is a true masterpiece. From the standpoint of the lighting, the composition, the drama imbued in the painting, this work of art speaks to me. A photographer can learn a lot from this picture. From the adherence to the basic rule of thirds, to the use of light to accentuate the already dramatic pose of Daniel, to the use of colors and contrast to create depth, to the way the lions are “posed” to create shapes in the canvas, this painting is a brilliant inspiration to layman, artist, agnostic, or believer alike.
Then there is the set of four paintings by Thomas Cole. Collectively known as “The Voyage of Life”, you see a child on a boat, an angel beside him, moving in calm water. As a youth, the boy is alone in the boat, the angel hovering some distance away, as if to say that each of us is given control of our own destiny. In Manhood, the boat is beset by rough waters, the man facing challenges that we all must face, even as the angel watches from heaven above. Finally, in old age, the waters are calm again, and the angel once again is beside the man, accompanying him in the last part of his journey. In four paintings, Cole is able to encapsulate the adventures, joys, challenges that we all go through in our own lives. The use of light, color palette, dimensionality, to tell a story as grand and magnificent as anything that a Tolkien or George R.R. Martin has ever written, shows us that at our best, in spite of the difficulties we encounter in our lives, we are indeed the fit custodian of the rock that we live in.
Such is the power of art that when it truly moves you, you will find meaning in the artwork even without realizing what technique or what material the artist is using to create that piece of art. The hope, of course, is that these great works of art will not only bring a sense of wonder and awe to the viewer, but that some will be so moved as to want to study art and begin their own journey as an artist. I didn’t know much about art and my limited knowledge may have remained even more limited if not for a visit of some friends and their father to the D.C. area. He wanted to take his daughters to the museum. While we were there, we happened upon an exhibit of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. He started to explain to me about perspective, depth, composition, the rule of thirds by first looking at the drawings of Leonardo. And then through the paintings of various artists of different eras. He explained why the pre Renaissance paintings seemed rather flat and lifeless (in reality, they are not). His enjoyment and knowledge of art was infectious. I am forever in his depth for kindling, within me, a deeper appreciation of art.
We in the Washington D.C. area are fortunate to have one of the great art museums and art collections in the world within easy reach. Unlike other museums in other parts of the world, the Smithsonian museums and the National Art Gallery do not charge admission fees. The collection is amazing; the curators have made the collection even more accessible by making an auditory guided tour to the more notable works in the museum available at no cost. For the curious, there is simply no excuse not to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington.