Last weekend, when I visited PJ in Worcester, I stopped in at the Worcester Art Museum while he was working at the American Antiquarian Society. I had no particular expectations of what I would find there — I was just killing time while PJ worked. So, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there. The Worcester Art Museum has a strong collection of American and European art. I especially enjoyed the amount of information the museum provides for each of the works on display — every description contained a wealth of information; indeed, this may be the most informative museum I’ve ever visited without the aid of an audio guide. I highly recommend a visit to the Worcester Art Museum.

I’ll start with an example of what I mean about the informative nature of the museum’s comments about the works of art. In a really small way, I’ve started to collect images of the Hindu god Ganesha (maybe I’ll explain why in another post someday). I also like to see if each museum I visit has any statues of Ganesha. The Worcester Art Museum does, a little sandstone sculpture from the 7th or 8th century. As the commentary states, Ganesha is the “remover of obstacles” and the “bearer of good fortune and prosperity.” So far, that’s what just about every museum says about this god. But the Worcester Art Museum goes further: “His large elephant’s head and plump body is a visual metaphor for the unity of metaphysical and worldly experiences.” The description goes on, but this is the bit that I wrote down in my notebook. I liked that this commentary moved beyond mere description to analysis. I found that this move was typical throughout the museum.

After you see the museum’s small collection of ancient and Asian art, you can go into the Medieval art rooms. I really liked a wooden crucifixion group. If you click on the link, it will take you to the museum’s image and description of this work. In the room, you could see the French influence on this Spanish work, since it hangs next to contemporaneous images from France. The next room is an example of Medieval architecture. The museum reassembled a room from a Chapter House, pictured here, which you can walk through and admire.

Usually, I’m a little ambivalent about museums taking a room from someplace else and reassembling them, but this one just amazed me. I was especially impressed by the level of detail in this room’s brick work. I can’t even imagine how much work it took to disassemble and reassemble.

Brenet's This is one of the paintings I liked, French painted Nicolas-Guy Brenet’s Sleeping Endymion, which was painted in 1756. When a goddess feel in love with Endymion, she caused him to remain asleep forever so that he would stay forever young and beautiful. Brenet’s painting certainly captures that beauty, but I what I especially like is that Brenet also captures Endymion’s vitality. He’s asleep, but he’s not dead. You can definitely see why a goddess would fall in love with him!

I also really liked Hubert Robert’s The Shipwreck, an amazing work that dwarfs the other works in this room. (They’re all great too, but this painting is huge!) The museum has an excellent collection of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century paintings, including some I particularly liked by William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, Baciccio, Giovan Battista Moroni, Rembrandt, Nicholas Maes, and Gustave Courbet. I also liked this painting of A Woman at Her Toilette.

The museum also has a strong American collection, which includes this famous painting of Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, which was on the cover of the edition of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that I read in high school.

The museum’s description of this painting was also very informative. The museum has conducted x-ray examinations of many of its paintings, discovering that many of them were painted over previous images. In this case, the painting was changed — baby Mary was added as was some of Elizabeth Freake’s finery. In the original painting, Elizabeth’s hands were simply resting on her lap.

This kind of information doesn’t really change one’s enjoyment of the artwork, but it does remind us that a work of art is frequently much more a work in progress than we sometimes think. Also, in an age without photography, updating your portrait was a great way to show how one’s fortunes in life have changed — presumably cheaper than commissioning a new portrait!

Among the American works, I also liked Gilbert Stuart’s Mrs. Perez Morton, which is a very complex painting, I think. I certainly could have stared at it for some time just to get a sense of its dynamism. It partially looks cartoonish, but it’s also quite sophisticated. I really like. I also liked Worthington Whittredge’s View of Cincinnati and William Morris Hunt’s The Bathers.

I spent about two hours at the museum. I really enjoyed it and thought the collection was really strong for a relatively small museum. I highly recommended it to PJ, who visited the museum today. Perhaps he’ll his comments after he reads this post.