On Friday we took a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts to see their current special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I love Dutch painting. We went on a Vermeer kick last year and spent hours poring over a book of his paintings. I visited the Rembrandt museum when I was in Amsterdam years ago and I want my children to love his work too. And then there are so many other fabulous Dutch painters…. The organizing principle of this exhibit was to look at issues of class. It was separated into three galleries; the first had paintings of upper class people, the second of middle class, and the last of lower class.
75 paintings was a lot to absorb and the children of course got tired and a bit whiny. Every time a child came to say, “I’m bored,” or “I’m hungry,” (and the complaints were frequent), I listened to them and sympathized briefly and said we’d be going to lunch soon. And then redirected them to a detail in the painting in front of me: Do you see a horse? What color is her dress? What are those people doing? Do you see a dog? How many people are in this picture? Look at the lace on her dress. Look at the pearls in her hair. Look at his sword. Look at his shoes. Who is looking at you? What is she looking at? Do you think that mother is putting the sheets away or taking them out? What is that little girl going to do, go up the stairs or out the door? Do you see the boy standing on his head? Look, those men are sitting on top of a table! What are they doing? Sewing? What is in her hand? Which dress do you like best? Do you see his helmet?
Amazingly, the children were almost always willing to be distracted and engaged as soon as I helped them find an entry point into each picture. Sometimes they did need to sit down and take a break. But eventually they came back for more.
Sophie brought out her sketch book and tried to draw some of the people. Lucy imitated her and scribbled in her sketchbook. So many people commented on how serious and studious they were. Bella also had a notebook and was writing down details about the pictures she liked.
And this time I saw how my basic strategy for getting kids to really look at the art was bearing fruit. Sophie was doing really well at narrating the pictures to me. She came up to me and, unprompted, told me about the painting we were looking at: There’s a lady dressed all in black and she’s standing next to a red chair. . . . Unprompted, paying attention to detail, and able to put it into words, to organize her thoughts. She’s getting much better at this stuff and it’s interesting to see what she notices.
We made it through he exhibit and I think I got to at least glance at every picture. Actually, no there was one wall where I’m sure I didn’t look at two or three pictures, I think they were all nautical scenes and landscapes.
One thing I liked was in the final room. There were three tables, all the same size and with the same table cloth, each set according to the means of one of the classes. The upper class table had fine silver, etched glass, imported China, a knife and a combination spoon-fork. The middle class table had pewter dishes and decorative earthenware vessels. The lower class table had a wooden spoon, earthenware that was cruder, but still decorative, still made to not be merely utilitarian. It was interesting to see that all three tables had candlesticks, a mustard pot, a salt cellar. Real objects come out of the paintings for us to contemplate.
We stopped by the gift shop and the kids picked out postcards to put on their bedroom walls and we bought the exhibition catalogue. I consider that an educational expense, a homeshooling art appreciation and art history resource. I’m sure we will all be looking at the book again and again for years to come.
As we left the gift shop there was a life-size reproduction of a painting that the kids could pose in and tables with free postcards and quill pens so that you could write a card then and there.
Then it was time for lunch. Quick walk across the museum, don’t stop to look at the African art and the modern art… well, maybe just a quick peek?
Lunch in the garden cafeteria. The kids had chicken fingers and pizza. Dom and I had bbq brisket, beans, sweet potato fries. I got a salad bar selection to share: fruit, carrots, edamame, cherry tomatoes. I shared my BBQ plate with Lucy, who also had French fries and a bunch of the salad bar stuff as well as a sunbutter sandwich on wheat-free bread that I brought from home.
After lunch we wandered a bit: art of the Middle East, art of the Pacific Islands… not looking at everything in the gallery, just a few pieces that caught our eyes. But there were some fun moments, some real connections. We saw an old friend that the boys met when they took a museum class about poses and Sophie and I had to pose.
Then a brief foray into the other exhibit I wanted to see: Made in the Americas
The New World Discovers Asia. So many beautiful things, but we had to move pretty quickly. At this point the kids were fading fast, were tired and hot and cold and well everything was wrong. Dom and the big kids went out of the gallery while I looked at a few more things with Lucy tagging along.
I found them climbing up the grand staircase up to the rotunda. Lucy started climbing up and down too. Bella really wanted to go see the Chinese rooms she’d seen too briefly once before, so I left Lucy with Dom and the big kids and I went to take a quick turn around the gallery. Sometimes it’s worth while just to go and get a flavor because it whets the appetite for a longer look on a later date.
After that the kids were really done. Home again, home again. Fortunately I had a pot roast in the slow cooker waiting for us.
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