It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church. The spare, sweeping space of the galleries, the click of heels across marble and wood, the sound of parents shushing children into silence and the sight of impassive, stolid guards lined up along the walls like ushers felt familiar, even if the painting and sculpture did not.
I was young and slightly timid, well-educated but inexperienced in the arts. With an eye still incapable of discerning distinctions and little appreciation for technique, my first experience of a “real” art museum felt like a visit to a foreign country. I might as well have been in Tanganyika, a country that still existed the year I found myself plucked from my familiar, everyday world and transported to the National Gallery of Art.
Previously, my museum-going had been confined to the Des Moines Art Center. Building additions, including one designed by I.M. Pei, have changed its appearance over the years and expanded the space available for exhibits, but in its original incarnation it was positively cozy. With creamy stone facades, immaculate lawns and lush trees, it could have been any upper-middle class home in any upper-middle class Iowa neighborhood. It was as familiar as the neighborhood playground or the Dairy Queen, and as comfortable. It played to its audience, and did it well.
A February, 2011 review of the gallery by Iowa Girl On the Go confirms my memories:
Here’s the great thing about the Des Moines Art Center: It’s not a huge commitment. For one thing, admission is free. And you can easily view all of the museum’s holdings in an hour.
If you’re not from the midwest, that could sound like denigration, even criticism, but it isn’t. Translated, that bit of midwestern-speak means, “This place is accessible. You don’t have to be intimidated. You’re not going to be overwhelmed here or made to feel like a fool, and you might even like some of the art.”
Certainly the National Gallery appeared at first glance to be less accessible and far more intimidating anything Iowa had to offer. Meandering through the galleries, my vision clouded by my own inexperience and anxieties, I found the Titians and Rubens overblown, the piles-of-fruit-on-a-plate boring, the statuary cold and lifeless. I dismissed the portraits out of hand, finding them stiff and formal, and even the few “important” paintings I recognized, such as Raphael’s Alba Madonna, did little to assuage my sense of discomfort.
Like anyone who travels too far, too fast, I felt out of place and hungry for a taste of home. Little wonder, then, that a sudden glimpse of a beribboned tutu and toe shoes was enough to pull me across a gallery and through a door, compelled by a vision of a girl who might have stepped out of my own ballet class.
Purely by chance, I had found the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, that marvelous collection of light-conjurers whose ability to transform the mundane into the miraculous is unequalled. I knew few of the artists’ names and even less of their lives or artistic convictions, but I felt at home among them immediately. I had struggled in the studio with Renoir’s Dancer. I had my own experience of train whistles and steam, and the longing to be gone.
The familiar routines of daily life so beautifully captured in paintings like Edgar Degas’ Woman Ironing were the perfect foil for Edouard Manet’s Plum Brandy, with its undertones of escape to the foreign and exotic. Awash in color and light, the canvases fairly glowed. By the end of the day, my only wish was for another day to explore the marvelous collection – a wish with no time to be granted.
Forty-seven years later, I had my second opportunity to view the National Gallery’s Impressionist collection. This time, they came to me in the form of a marvelously curated exhibit at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Many favorites from my visit to the National Gallery were there, including my dancer, Manet’s Railway, the woman at her chores and the dreamy café dweller who seemed to epitomize freedom and sophistication.
On the other hand, paintings which never had appealed in the past, paintings which might as well have been invisible, had with the passage of time and accumulation of experience been made visible and appealing.
As Anais Nin so nicely puts it, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Decades ago, I saw the National Gallery exhibits as I was – young, overwhelmed and more than ready to worship at the altar of the familiar and comfortable. Today, more appreciative of technique, I can study the pointillists with curiosity and awe.
More confident in my abilities and less tentative in my opinions, I enjoy boldness in my colors, and the portrayal of worlds I’ve yet to explore.
Over the years, an increasing commitment to simplicity in life and an appreciation for the importance of detail have led to a deepened appreciation for the same “piles-of-fruit-on-a-plate” that once seemed unutterably boring.
And a broader knowledge of the artists themselves has made it possible to move beyond stereotype. Toulouse-Lautrec was more than the Moulin Rouge, and Paul Gauguin was his Breton girls as surely as his more well-known Tahitians.
Best of all, there are surprises to be had when an artist dares to move beyond the familiar. Mary Cassatt, best known for her tender portrayals of mothers and children, was said to be impulsive at times, willing to drag others into her creative process. As the Houston exhibit catalogue notes rather primly,
“Although Cassatt often used members of her family as models for her scenes of daily life, she was also known to use friends and neighbors who were never identified, such as the girl in “Child in a Straw Hat”.
Seen in a gallery, the portrait is stunning. Drawn by circumstance into a world not of her choosing, the girl stands before us, evaluating her situation. Her tousled hair, ruddy cheeks and plain pinafore suggest she may have been playing outdoors before being called in and forced to pose in a hat clearly too large to be her own. The protruding lip and puffy eyes suggest tears, but her expression is measured and direct. She seems less petulant than pensive, frustrated and bored by this immersion into an adult world as foreign to her as Tanganyika would be to us.
As with any portrait, questions abound. Most of them never will be answered, but this much is certain. A little girl whose essence was captured over a century ago stands before us today as familiar as our own children – her expression perfectly readable, her emotions made clear with only a few strokes of the brush. In her image, the foreign and the familiar have been perfectly joined.
It is, as they say, the power of art.