All Important Things

All Important Things

In the introduction to her devotional that accompanies the Gospel of John, Charlotte Mason penned these words: All important things are simple, and I often bear this in mind as we go about our days, whether we are gathered at the kitchen table for lessons or taking to the halls of our local art gallery. It has been quite a few years since our first visit there, to Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and as I have lately considered Mason’s axiom, I have begun reflecting on our many strolls through the halls of that museum. Walk with me, won’t you?

In gallery 86

Bold blues of the Mediterranean beckoned us closer. We were looking at Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party this morning. In this picture measuring nearly three feet in length and four in width, one mother holds one baby in a small citron boat rowed by one man, as the waves lap against the vessel. Cassatt painted this picture late in her career, and its sharp angles and vibrant hues were somewhat unconventional for the looser brushstrokes and more muted tones which often characterized her work. Her mentor and friend until his death Edgar Degas had introduced her to Japanese prints, and their simplicity and asymmetrical arrangements had influenced this, her largest, oil on canvas. Yet it was still Cassatt. Even in this new style, she had not abandoned her abiding theme of maternal affection.

Not yet three years old, my only daughter gazed upward at the picture, while I read to her its name from the placard below. We shared what we noticed. Perhaps it was the combination of colors, perhaps it was the gentle gaze of the mother, or perhaps it was the soft eyes of the baby, who seems the center of the composition, the oar and the oarsman’s hand both drawing even the indiscriminating eye to her, but she saw something that quieted her. It quieted me, too.

We went along our way after a time, stopping at Renoir’s The Dancer, Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, and Van Gogh’s La Mousmé. As we strolled under skylights and past the brushstrokes of master hands, her little footsteps brought us back to The Boating Party, arguably the first piece of Impressionism to be exhibited in the United States. The year was 1895. Pioneers were still breaking ground west of the Ohio River, while the New York public saw the French coast through the eyes of an Allegheny native. And here we were, more than a century of time passed, gripped by it just as New Yorkers had been when the paint was fresher.

Without warning, my daughter dropped to the floor in a heap of sobs. I knelt and scooped her up in surprise, drying her dampened cheeks— “Are you ready to go home? You must be so tired.”

“I don’t want to leave.”

“Neither do I, but it’s been a long morning. We need to go and rest now.”

“But I’m not tired,” she protested. “I don’t want to leave this picture. Can we please take it home?” she pleaded with the tenderness of innocence but the fierceness of two.

I looked into her dusty blue eyes: “Did you know,” I asked, “that many years ago, a man named Mr. Andrew Mellon built this gallery for the American people?”

“Hmm?” Her curiosity was piqued.

“He lived a long time ago, and he enjoyed beautiful and interesting pictures so much that he bought many of them. But he realized that other people would never see those pictures if they only hung in his house. So, he built this place for everyone, for people like you and me, and he began hanging pictures on these walls instead.”

“He did?”

“Yes. And then, other people began to do the same thing, people like Mr. Chester Dale who gave the Gallery this picture right here.”

“He gave away Boating Party? But why?” She was wrestling.

“Because he wanted people to enjoy looking, like we have been doing, like everyone here is doing today.”

I entrusted that conversation to the Lord today, my daughter’s first to walk through the West Building’s towering bronze doors at the Gallery. We had opened those doors flanked by pale pink Tennessee marble this morning, and when they closed behind us this afternoon, we turned to face Constitution Avenue and made our way home with fresh thoughts that I trust will carry us into many more walks and many more thoughts through those historied halls.

In gallery 66

The Gallery echoes more in the winter. Fewer people visit the city in these bleaker months, and so, fewer footsteps fill the halls. It’s our favorite time to go, and today, I worried for a moment that the only other visitors in this gallery were disturbed by my boy’s toddling stamps and eager shouts— “The horses, mama! The horses!”, as he raced toward the lustrous commemoration of the men of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Civil War regiment of African Americans enlisted in the North. The Shaw Memorial installed here is the sculptor’s own plaster cast of his bronze that has stood on Boston Common since its May 31, 1897, unveiling, when The Battle Hymn of the Republic, an artillery battery, and three warships in the harbor each took their turn to ring its welcome to the city as rain poured lightly down. At roughly twelve feet by seventeen feet, the plaster’s size alone commands the crowds during peak season, and it commanded even our small gathering today.

My son promptly took a seat on the floor at the feet of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and the other visitors smiled his way. His elder sister, who years before had so longed to take a Cassatt home, followed close behind and took a seat beside him. His other sister found her place on a bench. I reached for my phone and stole a picture to document the calm that had fallen over them, but, irritated by the irony and the disruption I may have caused already, I stuffed my phone back down as quickly as I had taken it out.

For more than a decade, Augustus Saint-Gaudens contemplated the narrative of this work, sculpting the Harvard-educated Shaw and the relief of the ready men of the 54th, which included the sons of Frederick Douglass, as they commenced the work their governor described as full of hope and glory. Today, Saint-Gaudens’ self-described “labor of love” invited my children to slow down and to consider. Though I did tell them the name of the cast and the men and the battle it depicted, we mostly sat and looked.

Those valiant men, resolved in their duty, marched to the beat of a drummer boy’s hands, as we sat looking on. We saw faces young and old, a sea of legs moving toward something beyond self, guns propped on shoulders fitted in Union blue. We saw the flag waving above determined souls, led by the twenty-five-year-old Shaw. After he accepted the post, his mother wrote him: “I feel ready to die, for I see you willing to give your support to the cause of truth that is lying crushed and bleeding.” He would not live to see his mother after his regiment trooped South, and she with his father, who counted among their friends Emerson and Hawthorne and Beecher Stowe, denied an officer’s burial for their son, requesting instead that his body rest with those of his men at the site of their fall to the Confederates at Fort Wagner. I shared this with our family at dinner some weeks later, my eldest nodding in thought and keeping to herself those ideas she was still considering.

In gallery 50

Today was intended to be a day for favorites— to see the dancers and the mothers with their children and the horses and the English countryside and Vermeer. In fact, if ever you stop in to see Vermeer’s pictures in the Dutch gallery, where two forgeries The Lacemaker and The Smiling Girl once hung until forensic analysis exposed them as fraudulent, be warned: a step too close, and the alarm will sound: “You are too close. Please step back.” A flurry of security staff will, at the least, look your way. As it was today, my five-year-old daughter personally received such a warning from an officer posted nearby, just as we exited that small room where Vermeer’s pictures rest. Though she often twirls her way through these halls, she had stopped in this moment at Jan van Huysum’s Still Life with Flowers and Fruit. She was drawn to something in the delicate arrangement— the peonies, roses, tulips, carnations, veronica, auriculae, tuberoses, and hops; the apples and peaches and grapes, green and purple. She wanted to look closely, and in that wave of enthusiasm, her pointing finger had moved too closely to the winged insect situated on an illuminated pink bloom in the foreground. I assured the lady lieutenant that it was an honest mistake. We apologized.

Expression relaxed, she turned to my daughter, intent on allaying the embarrassment we both recognized in her blushing cheeks. “You must see something here that you think is really nice.”

My daughter’s eyes brightened. “Mm-hmm. We noticed all of the bugs. And the raindrops.”

“Yes, isn’t that incredible?” the officer remarked. “They all look so real, as if they just flew past us and landed on the picture.” My little one smiled with curiosity, and I smiled with gratitude. “I sometimes wonder if he added those, or if they were sitting on the petals while he painted them.”

My daughter noticed another moth.

“Have you worked at the Gallery long?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she replied, glancing at the floor, slow to smile, as if hours upon days upon years of tranquil moments were passing before her mind’s eye. She had been walking these very halls since I was about my son’s age, and my curiosity got the better of me. Why did she choose to work here? How had the Gallery changed over the decades? Did she ever look at the paintings with curators or only by herself? Question after question made its way into our conversation, until—“What have you learned after all of these years surrounded by so much beauty?”

I have learned to look.

She answered with ease. She had had no guide, no well-choreographed class, and the pictures had grown with her as she looked, and looked, and looked again.

Would she take a moment to walk my children to one of her favorites in the room?

“No, no,” she shook her head. “I would much rather they take me to a painting that they like.”

And so, we turned from the stilleven and made our way back to Vermeer, the girls gesturing to A Lady Writing. It is a masterful display of light and a presentation of peaceful reflection, as a woman perhaps records her day in a journal or ruminates over ideas in a letter but pauses her pen to greet you with a smile. The picture once hung above a family’s fireplace in the library of their home until they brought it here in 1962 to the caretakers who comprise the Gallery’s staff and preserve these extraordinary works for the people of our nation. We stayed a while in that oak-paneled, low-lit gallery, where Chester Dale donated the institution’s first Dutch still life by Willem Kalf some seventy-six years before.

In gallery 3

Entering the Gallery through those bronze doors, footsteps away from our nation’s Capitol Building, we took a westward turn on the ground floor into a hall that attracts people all the world over, the hall that is home to the sixty-three original sculptures of French Impressionist Edgar Degas. The horses, the jockeys, the women, and the dancers: they are all there with stories to tell, and Mr. Paul Mellon, only son of the Gallery’s founder, wanted people to hear them, “especially,” he said, “those little citizens who, with wide eyes, enjoy looking.”

Eager to see Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, my elder daughter dashed ahead for the delicate wax figure encased by glass. A watchful guard winked her way. I steered the stroller and held my son on my hip, while his sister walked a few steps ahead. Today marked her first time to view the waxen girl dressed in a cotton faille bodice and cotton and silk tutu. There was much I wanted to say—it’s the only sculpture Degas exhibited! His critics called it repulsive! Look—beeswax! rope! clay! human hair! linen slippers! But I held my tongue and kept a few paces behind. It is too easy to add to the noise of her world, I thought, and I have made that mistake before. She has only a little more than a year left before she begins formal lessons, I thought, and her days will be full of formality then. Today, I want stillness for her, I thought. I want her to greet Degas and to meet Marie van Goethem.

And meet them she did.

Days later, she found me standing over a hot stove preparing dinner, while her brother circled our small kitchen with his toy airplane. “Mama, why do you think that little dancer wore a sad face?” Her question startled me. So, I set the spoon down, and we talked. We remembered Degas’ girl, discovered in his studio after his death ninety-seven years before my own girl’s birth and gifted to the American people by the younger Mellon in his final Gallery bequest the year I graduated from high school. We contemplated the humanity of this one Marie that French bourgeois called “opera rat” and critics considered depraved, and I was thankful for the simple quiet we had in that famed hall just one month ago, where my children stood mind to mind with the dancer’s maker and the dignity that our Supreme Maker saw fit to display through his hands.

Beauty and Simplicity have ever walked hand in hand,
and a little child may enter the kingdom of Art as readily as the kingdom of Heaven.
– Mrs. Howard Glover

Notes and Works Consulted

Introduction

“All important things.” Mason, Charlotte. “Meditation” The Parents’ Review 17, No. 09, pp. 707-709. In Scale How Meditations, annotated by Benjamin E. Bernier, 2011. Lulu.com: 19.

In gallery 86

“Edgar Degas had introduced her to […].” Bullard, E. John, 1972. Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels. New York, Phaidon/Oxford: Watson-Guptill Publications, in cooperation with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In gallery 66

“Today, Saint-Gaudens’ self-described ‘labor of love’ invited my children to slow down and to consider.” Saint-Gaudens, Augustus (Edited and amplified by Homer Saint-Gaudens), 1913. The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. New York: The Century Co.

After he accepted the post, his mother wrote him: “I feel ready to die, for I see you willing to give [y]ou[r] support to the cause of truth that is lying crushed and bleeding.” Duncan, Russell, ed., 1992. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, Georgia, and London: University of Georgia Press.

Blatt, Martin H., Brown, Thomas J., and Yacovone, Donald, eds., 2001. Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

The Monument to Robert Gould Shaw: Its Inception, Completion, and Unveiling 1865-1897, 1897. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company.

In gallery 50

“The picture once hung above a family’s fireplace in the library of their home […].” A Lady Writing Provenance. National Gallery of Art. Accessed October 2, 2019. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46437.html#provenance

“Chester Dale donated […].” Wheelock Jr., Arthur K. “A History of the Dutch Painting Collection at the National Gallery of Art,” in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions (Washington, 2014). Accessed September 28, 2019. https://www.nga.gov/research/online-editions/17th-century-dutch-paintings/essay-history-dutch-paintings-nga.html

Wheelock, Jr., Arthur K., 1995. “The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries,” in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, eds. C. P. Schneider, W. W. Robinson and A. I. Davies Cambridge, MA, 271–275.

In gallery 3

“Mr. Paul Mellon, only son of the Gallery’s founder, wanted people to hear them, ‘especially,’ he wrote, ‘those little citizens who, with wide eyes, enjoy looking.’” Paul Mellon: In His Own Words. National Gallery of Art. Washington Source, Interface Media Group. Accessed October 19, 2019. https://www.nga.gov/audio-video/video/paul-mellon.html

“opera rat.” https://www.nga.gov/collection/highlights/degas-little-dancer-aged-fourteen.html

“[…] gifted to the American people by the younger Mellon in his final Gallery bequest.” Press Release, National Gallery of Art: June 25, 1999. “Gifts from Paul Mellon Bring Depth to National Gallery’s French, American, and British Collections.”

Conclusion

Glover, Mrs. Howard, 1902. “Our Relations with Music and Art. The Parents’ Review. Vol. 13, No. 08, pp. 575-589. (P.N.E.U. 6th annual conference, Report of Proceedings)

Pictures Noted

The Boating Party, Mary Cassatt
c. 1893/94
Oil on Canvas, overall 35 ½ x 46 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Chester Dale Collection

The Shaw Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens
c. 1900
Patinated plaster, overall (without armature or pedestal) 145 1/4 x 206 1/2 x 34 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire

The Lacemaker, Imitator, Anonymous Artist, of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)
c. 1925
Oil on canvas, overall: 17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Andrew W. Mellon Collection, not on view

The Smiling Girl, Imitator, Anonymous Artist, of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)
c. 1925
Oil on canvas, overall: 16 1/8 x 12 1/2 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Andrew W. Mellon Collection, not on view

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, Jan van Huysum
c. 1715
Oil on panel, overall 31 x 24 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of Philip and Lizanne Cunningham

A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665
Oil on canvas, overall 17 11/16 x 15 11/16 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer

Maria educates her children at home in the Charlotte Mason tradition and enjoys studying and sharing with others the biblical roots of Mason’s philosophy. Though a linguist by profession and a pianist by training, her heart is for the ministry of motherhood and the pursuit of Truth. She resides in the Washington metro area with her husband and three children.

©2019 Maria F. Bell

3 Replies to “All Important Things”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Maria! And thank you for making the effort to bless your children with your frequent trips to the NGA. I can’t wait to see the fruit it will continue bearing in their lives. I’ve no doubt they will each have a special gift for the world, given by God but nurtured by these visits to behold beauty.

    1. Amy,

      I am glad you appreciated this lovely piece. The article does not include any images, but if you scroll down to the references section, there are some hyperlinks to the National Gallery of Art web site with information about and images of some of the works discussed.

      Blessings,
      Art

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