Moran. Cassatt. Wyeth. Van Gogh. Sargent. Monet. Paxton. Klimt. Bouguereau. Hopper. O’Keeffe. Bateman. Wiley.
You know their names because you love their work.
Same here. I love all art, but especially painting.
And that’s what drove me to travel the United States in search of one-on-one time with some of the greatest artists canvas ever invented.
It started a dozen years ago.
Someone who didn’t know me very well once told me:
“You’re obsessed with birds.”
It was an insult, I think, an estimation of my limitations.
But what I thought was:
“Duh! Of course, I’m obsessed with birds! They’re amazing!”
Then I thought. “Hold on a sec…Birds aren’t the only thing I’m obsessed with. I love gardening, and movies, and travel, and camping, and tiger beetles, and cooking, and my wife, and writing, and I love paintings.”
So in this age of online access I decided to look up a few of my favorites.
With the click of a mouse I found Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and O’Keeffe’s “Oriental Poppys.” I found “St. Bride” by John Duncan and “Silent Thunder” by Eyvinde Earle and “The Fox Hunt” by Winslow Homer — all in handy jpeg form.
So I saved them to my computer. I found ten paintings. Then fifty. Then things spun out of control.
By the time I’d collected 5,200 jpegs of my favorite paintings, I’d re-defined the meaning of obsession.
And — as one might twist a cliché — like “Blumenshein’s Monster,” that obsession came to life.
It wasn’t enough to just collect images of the paintings; I wanted to see them. All of them.
And not see them but bask in them.
I wanted to stand where the artist stood, close enough to see the brush strokes and huff the oil paint.
North America is loaded with great art museums.
Every major city has at least one.
And in each of those museums lives at least one of the many paintings I adore.
So now I travel not only to know the natural world, but to stand in the presence of pretty pigments.
I have now visited nearly 20 museums, from Seattle to Jacksonville.
At the de Young Museum in San Francisco, I stood before the marvel of Church’s “Rainy Season in the Tropics.”
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I ogled “Storm in the Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt, and “Untilted, 1949” by Mark Rothko.
At the Milwaukee Art Museum I was blessed by “Woman in Black” by Louis Mayer and “Wood Gatherer (Pere Jacques)” by Jules Bastien-Lepage.
One of the finest art museums in the U.S. is only an 90 minutes from Eau Claire.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is free to the public — and houses such treasures as “Temptation” by William Adolphe Bouguereau, “Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet” by Benjamin West, and “Journey of the Magi” by Tissot.
Until very recently I thought the Chicago Art Institute was the greatest thing since sable-hair brushes.
That glorious place holds Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Cassat’s “The Bath,” and la Touche’s “Pardon in Brittany.” That all changed last month.
In November I visited Washington, D.C., where I toured three amazing museums — the National Museum of Women in the Arts, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), easily the most impressive gallery I’ve yet seen.
I swooned before “Woman with a Bowl of Violets” by Lilla Cabot Perry, spent 15 minutes enjoying Brush’s “The Moose Chase,” and in a single room at the SAAM, I was framed on three sides by 8-foot-high Morans!
All of that, and I’ve yet to visit New York City, home of some of the world’s best museums! Be still my carmine-red heart!
And after New York, what next? The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia? The Prado in Madrid? The Vatican? The Uffizi Gallery in Florence? The Louvre?
Fortunately, great paintings, well-preserved, last hundreds of years.
Alas, the individual art lover does not.
Making the most of the time you’re granted is an art form in itself.
While touring the National Portrait Gallery with my wife, we were fresh from admiring Kehinde Wiley’s lush tribute to Barack Obama when we spotted a diverse group of D.C. elementary children lying on their bellies in front of George P. A. Healy’s painting “Abraham Lincoln,” painted long after Lincoln’s death in 1887.
Lincoln is seated in a simple chair, in a room devoid of all other detail, his chin resting in his right hand.
The children, on a school trip, were writing in their journals.
Their teacher asked them. “Look at President Lincoln’s face. What do you think he’s feeling right now? What do you suppose he’s thinking about?”
I took a moment to look at the portrait, attempting to formulate my own answer.
Other than the clichés of touch-and-go diplomacy, the travesties of war and racial strife, and the lament of mortality, I could come up with nothing fresh and new.
Then I wondered what the artist was thinking as he painted.
And cliché melted to composition and color and the kind of mastery that stops all thought but one.
Here stand we before creative masterpiece, and what on planet Earth makes us more human?