The city is our best shot at escaping the city. Within the big, frantic city, we find places to breathe. Twice in the last month, dozens of times in the past year, I have taken refuge in the National Gallery of Art. Washington has beer joints. Washington has baseball. But when money is tight and the stress intolerable, there are few luxuries like strolling along a wall of Modiglianis for free.
Often the museum has been a family retreat. My wife goes for Whistler’s Symphony in White, a rather suggestive portrait of the artist’s redheaded mistress perched at the end of a corridor that has the feel of a wedding aisle. Beckett, our three-year-old, digs the dragon figurines in the gift shop. Of the galleries, the eighteenth century British, flush with gundogs and lapdogs, are the ones he hates least. Beckett wants a dog, preferably a beagle, for Christmas. A dog or a razor scooter, of which there are no paintings on view.
A Saturday morning. I float with my daughter, Helena, around Degas’s Little Dancer, the original wax sculpture with the muslin tutu. Something about a daughter avails a father of Degas, all those ballerinas, all those horses in bronze. Degas sounds like dada. Dada is one of a handful of sounds that Helena, aged one and in possession of a single tooth, can make. But when she coos the syllables from atop my shoulders (before the guard says to put her down), I know what I hear. Helena is the world’s youngest art history major.
On lunch breaks from work, I dip into the museum alone. At a steady clip, cutting across grass and traffic, the walk from Capitol Hill takes fifteen minutes, the trudge back up an extra five, which leaves the better part of a half hour for looking. What am I looking for? Reprieve. Perspective. To come upon Turner’s Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight is to forget about hashtags and afternoon deadlines. Anxiety, the storm we wake to inside the Beltway, has a way of clearing before an early Constable landscape such as Wivenhoe Park, Essex.
Unlike my kids, I did not grow up around museums. I grew up around porches and pasture and wire. I am not complaining. My grandfather taught us how to siphon gasoline. My mother made sure we knew Cézanne. He had paid for her to go to the Louvre in high school. In the kitchen she kept a worn volume on Monet. Naturally, the Cézannes and Monets were among the first canvases I bulls-eyed in the National Gallery, Allso, Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up, a framed print of which dangled in my Tennessee elementary school.
Other images I knew from book covers. Botticelli’s Portrait of a Youth was the sinister visage fronting the Bantam paperback of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Félix Vallotton’s The Wind jacketed the Nashville poet Mark Jarman’s To The Green Man. “I looked around,” Jarman wrote in a poem inspired by the work, “wanting to be changed…”
After the familiar, we veer for the renowned. The museum’s collection includes Dürer’s Melancolia I, three Madonnas by Raphael, four characteristically light-soused Vermeers, a Titian/Bellini bacchanal, Miró’s Head of a Catalan Peasant, self portraits by Rembrandt and Gauguin and Van Gogh, several decades of Picasso pendulum swings, Hopper’s chilling Cape Cod Evening, a phalanx of Rodin sculptures, and the Ginerva de’ Benci, the only Leonardo in the Americas.
But these are works of the bucket-list variety, celebrated yet obligatory, sublime, sacred even, and yet somehow difficult to adore. If there is any abiding magic to be had in museums surely it crackles in remoter corners, afield from the crowds, on walls without masterpieces, when we’ve quit the hustle of checking boxes and eased to a speed that invites the unfamiliar to take us by surprise.
On a recent afternoon, in the Netherlandish galleries, I lit upon a painting of the healing of the paralytic by an unnamed artist from the late 1500s. Most renderings of the miracle focus on the moment when Christ calls the man to take up his mat and walk. Here, however, the scene has been pushed to the background, where it smolders in shadow, as if in memory, a reminiscence that would seem to have been triggered by the healed man’s footfall (shown center-front) on a hilltop over town.
I had glanced past the painting before. Now I was hooked. What did the piece suggest about the nature of remembrance? That dipping, liberated expression on the paralytic’s face, did it call more to mind a panhandler with a winning Powerball ticket or a K Street lawyer fresh back from declining a raise? And what of the healer, blurred in the distance, at whose bid the lame rise with mesomorphic calves? What to make of him?
There I stood entertaining these questions, no doubt putting off a disoriented vibe, when a woman in capri pants tapped me on the left shoulder. “The most famous painting in this room,” she said, “is Bosch’s Death and the Miser.” She seemed well intentioned, if a bit presumptuous, not wanting a tour de force by an early Dutch master to go ignored. But I did not budge. I looked where I was looking, and the longer I looked the more I could see. This is another reason we return to museums. Our vision alters. We exit with wider eyes.
Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor in Washington, DC.