Filling Up on Art

In The Swan Thieves, a novel by Elizabeth Kostova, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow has particular thoughts about visiting places that house art. As he leaves the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he says, "I believe in walking out of a museum before the paintings you've seen begin to run together. How else can you carry anything away with you in your mind's eye?" Then he notes to himself:

Pushing out through the doors, I experienced that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum; relief at being returned to a familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world's lack of mystery: There was the ordinary street without brushwork or the depth of oil on canvas.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

I can't say that I wholly agree with Dr. Marlow, for it's definitely possible to perceive beauty and mystery in the everyday scenes around us. It's a matter of opening the mind and paying attention to what's otherwise too familiar. Also, we can feel relief going in either direction. If the day we visit a museum, there are no major crowds, isn't it a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle on the street and the cacophony of blaring horns? At certain moments, when we're standing in front of a work of art that moves us, doesn't it feel as though we've entered a sacred space?

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

But I have to admit that, during my recent 5-week trip and others before it, at times my head was spinning. There was so much to take in, as though the only way to eat was to gorge at an overly abundant smorgasbord. I didn't relish indigestion.

It's a hard call how much art to view, especially when I don't know that I'll ever return to that museum or gallery, let alone that city or country. I used to think I had to do it all, for I might never again have the possibility. Over the years, I've changed my mind. In this one life, there's no chance that I'm going to get to every country, see every work of art, and so on. I don't want to. Fewer but more memorable experiences are far more valuable to me than quantity.

When confronted with a great deal of art, I have several options. Generally, I take a lot of photographs so that I can revisit the art in a more leisurely manner at home. However, they don't necessarily capture the textured details one sees in person. Mostly, I am highly selective about which exhibits I'll view, even how much of the exhibit. I limit myself so that I can enjoy what's there and what I feel drawn to for more than a fleeting glance. In this case, less is definitely more. Another approach is to intersperse museum visits with other activities. There's no formula. I go with what feels right on the particular day.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If I were to write about all the art I am fortunate to witness and include photos of everything I've seen, you'd soon stop reading this blog. There's only so much any of us can digest. That's why this post offers some tapas instead of a 12-course meal! Enjoy them as you like. These American and European artworks are part of the permanent collection at The Clark Art Institute near Williamstown, which a friend was kind enough to drive me to while I was in Massachusetts.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

While I am usually more attracted to abstract rather than representational art, I was surprised by the light and depth in "Saco Bay," by American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910). He painted this sunset at Saco Bay, Maine, near his studio. The two women, carrying lobster traps and fishing nets were among the last figures he included in his paintings, which progressively focused only on the sea. A reviewer at the time criticized Homer for the "unnatural strawberry sky," but the painter felt it was one of his best works. If I had not seen it in person, but only in a photograph, I don't know that it would have captured my attention. But as I entered the first gallery at The Clark, I was struck by that strawberry coloring.

In other rooms, I saw works by Inness, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Sargent, Millet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Corot, and more.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

One that seemed out of place, considering all the Impressionist paintings in the collection, was "Various Objects," by Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). It's one of his earliest efforts at trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") painting. He might have even invented the term. The painting seems to be dedicated to a couple, Monsieur and Madame Dandré, to whom some of the letters are addressed. The sprig of pansies (pensées, in French, which also means "thoughts") next to them seems appropriate. Who knows what the objects are conveying, perhaps something related to the couple's activities? It feels like a contemporary assemblage.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The last image below is of "The Sower," by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. He is known for his sympathetic depictions of agricultural laborers and his profound influence on later artists, such as Pissarro and Van Gogh.

Questions and Comments:
If you consider viewing art a high priority at home or while traveling, how do you deal with the fact that so much is available? What are your strategies to counter feeling overwhelmed?

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

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