Two years ago, a visitor to the National Gallery of Art wrote to the editor of The Washington Post complaining that a tour he had heard interrupted his appreciation of a work by Rembrandt. I felt the need to respond, but by the time my letter was approved by all who needed to do so at the museum, it was too late to publish it in the newspaper. I would like to take the opportunity to respond in your publication.
Dear Mr. Gunderson:
There are many levels from which one can approach a work of art, from the most basic, subjective “I know what I like” to a substantial knowledge of the cultural and artistic context of a work. At any level, a viewer may feel intense empathy with a work of art, a sense of very focused communication. Some people describe the experience with words like those you chose to describe the Rembrandt: “the painter was still alive … something he found 300 years ago was still shining.” But what is that “something” and how did he capture it?
Recognizing that many visitors to the National Gallery want the opportunity to learn about different ways to look at and understand works of art, we offer tours, gallery talks, discussion groups, single lectures, and lecture series. The Gallery also mounts temporary exhibitions, provides wall labels, brochures, etc. The talk which you described in your comments was undoubtedly an introductory tour, the purpose of which is to introduce visitors to the collection, highlighting a number of works and offering various approaches to understanding. The tour most likely included discussions of art appreciation, technique, symbolism, history, biography, and the formal language of art based on the visual evidence of individual works.
Take, as an example, the Rembrandt Self Portrait that you admire. According to your own description, the docent said that the painting “was one of many self-portraits.” During his lifetime, Rembrandt sketched, painted, and etched images of himself for close to fifty years in order to perfect his ability to convey the most subtle nuances of human character and emotion. The result that you see in the 1659 work at the National Gallery is something, then, that was honed over nearly a half-century of painstaking experience. And what is there? An old man whose flesh is wrinkled and sagging but whose eyes are intense with the experience of life. And why do we read this expression as life? Because Rembrandt had become so adept at manipulating oil paints and glazes, building up the surface and adding highlights, that we are convinced of the human truth of what we see. In addition, the fact that Rembrandt shows himself in a half-length pose, dressed in dark, ill-defined clothes, set against an almost equally dark background eliminates any possible distraction. The luminous oval of Rembrandt’s face shines forth and there the artist’s facility and experience captures life itself in paint.
Does such information interfere with or enhance the appreciation of his work? And even if you or other visitors choose not to make use of it, does that render the information invalid and useless to all? We sincerely believe that such tours are an aid to many visitors in understanding Rembrandt’s artistic achievement. Through them and our other programs, interested museum-goers can learn to sharpen their powers of perception, to “read” images and thus begin to understand some of the ideas in a work of art that can be grasped by intelligent looking. Our programs do not diminish the appetite for the contemplative, aesthetic experience, but offer avenues toward their enhancement.
Lynn Pearson Russell, Head of Adult Programs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Pearson Russell, Lynn. “It Works for Me…Sharing successful techniques and ideas.,” The Docent Educator 5.1 (Autumn 1995): 20.