At least two people I know have seen Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre. My brother-in-law saw it while traveling Europe in the’70s; and my oldest son visited the Louvre on a school trip a couple of years ago when he was 16. My brother-in-law is an artist who is (and was then, I’m pretty sure) fairly well self-educated in art history; my son is neither. Upon seeing one of the world’s most famous paintings in person, both had almost exactly the same reaction.
To paraphrase: It’s small and you have to stand far away and you get to view it for about 15 seconds and it’s really kind of a massive letdown.
Not to diminish what I’ve read and learned about the Mona Lisa: It broke new ground in portraiture, the composition is aesthetically complex, the expression of the subject unusually enigmatic. But then, not to diminish what I’ve learned about visiting art museums: The level of the viewer’s art education be what it may, it really is all about his or her personal engagement with the venue and the art.
And before that, it’s also about developing an enthusiasm for seeing art—something that can happen at almost any age. Children and teens may roll their eyes when a suggested day trip includes an art museum, but the experience itself often surprises them. And there are a number of art museums right here in the Capital Region that have plenty to stoke a child’s or teen’s imagination.
When I was a child, my parents didn’t drag me to many art museums, so it took a college art history class to pique my interest. The lively lecturer was outstanding as he led us through an overview of the history of fine art, stopping to savor (on projector screen) some of the art world’s greatest treasures. The text for the course was Janson’s History of Art, a weighty survey of its titular subject filled with gorgeous colorplates. It was one of few college texts I actually saved and went back to; it still rests on a bookshelf at home.
Some of those colorplates have come to life for me at great museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Prado in Madrid. My Prado visit was disappointing but perhaps instructive; we spent too much time wandering rooms of older art that didn’t really engage me, and I was tired by the time we found the renowned works by Goya, Velazquez, etc., that we had come to see. (Yes, I admit, we were there for the Greatest Hits, but some of that 12th- and 13th-century European art just doesn’t inspire awe so much as it makes me feel like I’m in a really old, musty house.)
Of the others I mentioned, I love them all, but my favorite is the Art Institute: not too massive to see in one afternoon, but packed with artistic eye candy of the highest order. (Let’s not dwell on its cinematic immortalization in Ferris Bueller, but note how the experience of viewing Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte differs from that other experience I mentioned earlier . . .) We took the oldest two when they were 4 and 2; the 2-year-old slept, but the 4-year-old seemed to really enjoy himself.
But enough about places that involve trains and planes; let’s get back to automobiles, meaning, of course, the greater Capital Region. I would recommend taking children, even teens (if you can pry them away from their PlayStations), to any of our many fine regional museums. Now there are enough things going on at both the Albany Institute and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., to delight the younger children (mummies at both, plus dinosaur digs, aquariums, special exhibits, etc.) before you drag them in to see the Hudson River School collections. Not everyone’s most cherished era of painting, but historically and geographically relevant to us—and worth exposure to your kids. Sometimes I find it helps stir their interest if I point out that we’ve been near the place depicted.
Western Massachusetts alone is a grand tour unto itself: MASS MoCA might seem to your children by turns awesome or weird, but never dull; and with this great contemporary museum just down the road from the venerable Clark (more on this in a bit), often overlooked in their shadow is the very worthy Williams College Museum of Art. Over in the Pioneer Valley, smaller children always enjoy the picture-book art at the Eric Carle in Amherst (where they are encouraged to look for specific things in the art work, and also to make their own in the art room). But on our last visit to the area, it was Northampton’s Smith College Museum of Art that was a revelation. I hadn’t been since the renovation some years ago; the building itself is architecturally interesting in a clean, modern way (and there are artist-designed bathrooms and benches), but the collection itself is surprisingly strong. My 11-year-old loved the recent Summer of Love exhibit, which offered a photographic window into the turbulent ’60s; while my teens actually weren’t bored as they explored the varied permanent collection (which does have some heavy hitters, in case you think it might be too esoteric).
A word on the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. He was never a favorite of mine, because so many of the works I was familiar with (many commissioned as Saturday Evening Post covers) seemed sentimental and too-obvious in their attempt to tug at emotions. But those same qualities, I think, actually help youngsters develop their first taste for examining visual art in terms of human experience. What’s going on in The Rookie—why are all the veterans looking so skeptically at this cocky young player? And in Breaking Home Ties, who’s excited and who’s sad? Hint to your kids: There are two sad ones, but only one of them is showing it.
Speaking art and human experience, how about the human experience of realizing how we are dwarfed by nature? Winslow Homer’s Undertow is one of the few works currently on view at a small out-building of the Sterling And Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, while the main museum is still under renovation. We took the 11- and 8-year-olds there a few weeks ago, and while I was disappointed that most of the collection was off traveling the Earth, the kids had a great time—and were awed by the force of the ocean in Undertow. What was left of the collection there inspired my 11-year-old enough to ask me if I had a college art textbook—and next thing you know, we were back home, looking through my copy of Janson.
The Clark will have its grand reopening on the Fourth of July. You might not see us there that day, but when the hoopla dies down a little, we’ll be back, children in tow.