Visiting the Smithsonian: Part 1 Sunday, Jul 31 2011 

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. without it being primarily a business trip. Before going, I decided that I wanted to spend my four days there visiting as many of the museums and galleries as possible. I also wanted to visit a few other institutions that were either associated with the Smithsonian or not part of it.

Over the four days I was there, I visited the African Art Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, the American Indian Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Zoo, the Natural History Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the Sackler Gallery, the United States Botanic Garden, the National Gallery, and the Newseum. That’s an average of three institutions a day!

I’m happy to say that I had a great time visiting these museums, galleries, gardens, and zoo. It was a great way to spend a relaxing, fun vacation, and I learned a lot. As I walked around these institutions, I was really impressed with the fact that I live such an incredibly luxurious life. While I’m just an academic who heads up an honors college, I have the incredible luxury of spending the better part of week just touring museums and the like, not caring about anything taking the time off work or paying for my hotel and meals. I feel wonderfully lucky in life.

Rather than write about each museum in a separate post, I’ve decided to group the museums alphabetically into a few posts that will briefly summarize my thoughts on each institution I visited. In this post, I’ll write about my visits to the African Art Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and the American History Museum.


Visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Again) Monday, May 30 2011 

On Thursday, PJ and I each flew to Boston for the weekend. He was there for the American Literature Association Conference, and I decided to tag along for a little rest and relaxation. I had initially thought that I would set up some visits with alumni while there, but I quickly decided that I deserve a little time off every now and then. I’d glad I did; it was a fun, restful weekend.

The highlight of the trip was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts again. In particular, I took a look at the museum’s new Art of the Americas wing, which is nothing less than fabulous. My memory of the previous space was that it was rather dull. The new wing is beautifully arranged, and I especially enjoyed the lighting. The works on display are gorgeously lit in this new, four-story wing. There’s also plenty of room for moving around and seeing the works from multiple positions. It’s a great addition to the museum.

Much of the collection is organized around the museum’s strengths, two of which immediately stand out: John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent. One of my favorite paintings during this visit was Copley’s “Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow (Jemima Debuke)”:

This painting illustrates a trend in the way the museum now labels its paintings: whenever the painting depicts a married woman, her maiden name is also given in the title along with her married name. I really like this acknowledgment that women are not only wives, subsumed into their husbands’ identities.


Visiting the National Gallery of Art Thursday, Apr 21 2011 

Last week I was in Washington D.C. for work. Fortunately, I had time to visit a few museums while I was there, including the National Gallery, which is a great museum. I had been to two of them before. I really enjoyed visiting them again soon enough to remember what I had liked before and what I wanted to see again.

Now that I’ve been to Belgium and saw an exhibit about Dutch and Flemish painters, I was particularly interested in seeing the Gallery’s Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries. When I was there in 2009, I was interested in a female Dutch painter, Judith Leyster. Initially, I thought it would be nice to see her work again, but the exhibit has changed since then. While I certainly like her work, the new stuff was also great.

Perhaps my favorite this time was Dutch painter Abraham De Verwer’s “View of Hoorn” from about 1650:

I love the color palette, the browns and oranges, and the painting’s overall simplicity. Here’s part of what the museum’s web site says about the painting:

In this atmospheric painting, Abraham de Verwer has depicted the Dutch city of Hoorn from the south, the view that greeted ships as they sailed the Zuiderzee toward this important port that served as a major center for trade to the Baltic, the West Indies, and the East Indies. From De Verwer’s low and distant vantage point, Hoorn’s distinctive city profile is barely distinguishable. To the right of the three-masted sailing ship in the distance is the tower of the massive structure at the harbor’s entrance. The towers of the city’s Noorderkerk (North Church), Grote Kerk (Great Church), and Oosterkerk (East Church) are just visible above the buildings lining the harbor and the masts of ships moored within it, all of which De Verwer silhouetted in muted browns against the gray sky.

It’s a relatively simple painting visually, but I think it’s absolutely lovely. Dutch painting seems rather staid and somber. This painting represents that tendency beautifully.


Visiting the Rijksmuseum Monday, Apr 5 2010 

While PJ and I were in Amsterdam last month, we visited the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s great museums. The museum’s main building is being renovated, so only small portion of the collection is available for exhibition. What the museum has done, therefore, is put together many if its masterpieces and put them on display in the Philips Wing of the museum. While it would have been nice to see more, seeing these masterpieces were well worth the visit.

We arrived at the museum shortly after it opened, which meant that the line wasn’t too long. We probably only waited in line about 15 or 20 minutes to get our tickets. It was a chilly, wet day, so we were both glad that it didn’t take long to get out of the weather and into the museum.

As the picture above suggests, the most famous work in the Rijksmuseum is Johannes Vermeer’s “The Kitchen Maid,” which is an amazing painting. Here’s an image of the painting featured on the museum’s web site:


HotM: Judith Leyster Sunday, Feb 28 2010 

Back in October, PJ and I were in Washington, D.C. While there, we visited the National Gallery of Art, which at the time had a special exhibit on seventeenth-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster. Since I’m about to head off to the Netherlands for a week (more about that sometime this week), I’ve decided to make Leyster my hottie of the month.

Leyster, pictured here in her self-portrait at the age of 21 in 1630, was born in 1609 and died in 1660, which means that she lived just long enough to make my hotties list (which generally covers the period from 1660 to 1820).

She was well-known in her own time but quickly fell into obscurity after her death. The pamphlet that accompanied the exhibit suggests two possible reasons for her disappearance. First, she largely stopped painting after she married in 1636. She married another painter, and her work became more of a collaboration with him. Thus, her individual identity was lost. Second, the pamphlet suggests that her habit of signing her paintings with just her initials might have contributed to her subsequent neglect — people may have simply forgotten who the initials stood for.

Both of these explanations seem plausible, especially since women in all fields of art were so often neglected after their deaths. In my own period and national literature there are countless examples of this, including Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips, and “Ephelia,” whose identity remains shrouded despite efforts to identify her. Fortunately, we now value these women’s contributions to art and their cultures enough to recover them and their works.


HotM: Antonio Canova Sunday, Jan 31 2010 

It’s been nearly a year since I had a hottie of the month, my tongue-in-cheek homage to men and women from the long eighteenth century. The lack of “hotties” has largely been due to the fact that I haven’t been teaching (or even researching) in the eighteenth century lately. Now that I’m a dean, I’m not teaching as much, on the one hand, and I don’t have much time for writing, on the other.

But I think it’s time to get back to my blogging roots. When I started this blog, it was mostly about my teaching and research. Over time it’s become more pop culture centered. While I’m still going to write about movies, music, and other random aspects of my life and opinions, I also want to write about eighteenth-century subjects. So, I’ve decided to revive the hottie of the month feature!

This month’s hottie is the eighteenth-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. While PJ and I were in Italy last summer, I fell in love with sculpture in a way that I had never been before. I was especially drawn to Bernini’s work at the Borghese Gallery. Canova also has a prominent work at the Borghese: a statue of Pauline Bonaparte:

As this image suggests, Canova’s ability to suggest drapery in this statue is amazing. It’s even better in person. The cushion she’s sitting on and the “fabric” on the side of the piece both make you feel like you could reach out and feel their softness.


Paolo Baruffaldi’s Le Rasoir 2009 Thursday, Oct 22 2009 

While walking to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice this summer, PJ and I were window shopping as we passed various art galleries. One in particular caught our eyes, the Galleria d’Arte Bac Art Studio.

This studio stood out to us for two reasons. First, most of the paintings in the window were etchings and watercolors, a medium that we both really like. And second, many of the works seemed to exemplify a queer aesthetic, also something we both really like.

After we visited the Guggenheim, we went back to the Bac Art Studio. This time we went inside and had a good look around. The work that PJ instantly expressed a fondness for depicts two men shaving. It’s called “The Razor”:

This painting is by Paolo Baruffaldi, a Venetian artist who has a few series of paintings displayed in the gallery. Even though “The Razor” was our favorite, we liked how a lot of his work seems to depict Venice as a homoerotic locale, something that we definitely did not pick up on while we were there. In fact, we felt that Italy as a whole was severely lacking in visible gay people, though we just might not have been looking in the right places.


Seraphine: A Review Monday, Sep 7 2009 

On Friday, PJ and I saw Seraphine, a movie about Seraphine Louis, a French painter who lived from 1864 to 1942. Here’s the trailer:

Louis painted in the “naive style” and was discovered by Wilhelm Uhde, who was one of the earliest collectors of works by Pablo Picasso and George Braque. Louis was a domestic servant for middle class families when Uhde first saw her one of her still-lifes in 1912. His patronage of her work was interrupted by World War I.  He fled the advancing German army and did not see Louis again until 1927. Uhde then worked to get Louis’s paintings exhibited, and in 1929 she began to see great success. But the Great Depression undercut her ability to sell her work, and in 1932 she was admitted to a mental hospital, where she spent the rest of her life.

Seraphine recounts Louis’s discovery by and subsequent relationship with Uhde. Yolande Moreau plays the title role. Not knowing anything about Louis before seeing this movie made watching Moreau’s performance more interesting, I think. Early in the film, we see that Seraphine isn’t like everyone else. At first, this just seems to be the stereotypical “artist’s temperament.” Later we realize that she’s suffered from mental issues all along. Moreau therefore has the difficult job of conveying to the audience Seraphine’s mental instability without making her seem totally crazy from the get go. I thought she did a great job of making us care about her character. She also gives us a great sense of Louis’s connection of painting as a religious experience.


My Thoughts on the Three Davids Thursday, Jul 30 2009 

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Italy was seeing three sculptures of David: Bernini’s, Michelangelo’s, and Donatello’s. So, I thought I would write about my impressions of these three works, individually and collectively.

The first of the three Davids we saw was in Rome: Bernini’s David at the Borghese Gallery. I’ve already blogged about my general impressions of this museum and sculpture here, so I’ll just sum up my response to this statue briefly.

I love this statue. In fact, it’s one of my favorite statues among the countless number of statues we saw on this trip. I love the intensity of this David, the concentration and strain. This version of the Biblical hero emphasizes that giant killing is hard work.

I also like the way in which Bernini borrows from Classical sculpture in idealizing David’s musculature and bone structure. He’s not an everyman who happens along and kills a giant. He’s a specimen of masculine beauty and perfection who is able to kill Goliath because of his perfection (bodily and spiritual).

This David doesn’t seem to be a specific age, though he’s clearly a man, not a boy. His “manliness” is almost revealed to the onlooker, but his clothing just barely covers it. Again, this reminds me of the Classical statues that surround him in Rome while maintaining the modesty of the Catholic Renaissance.


Visiting the Duomo Museum Wednesday, Jul 22 2009 

One of my favorite parts of our time in Florence last month was visit to the Duomo Museum, a museum created to house the Duomo‘s artwork, much of which was originally on the outside of the church and therefore exposed to the elements.

Here’s a picture of the outside of the Duomo:

Almost in the middle of the picture you can see four statues. Here’s a closer look:

The originals of these statues, along with some exterior doors and other objects from the Duomo, have been moved into the Duomo Museum, which is behind and across the street from the church.


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