A lady walks in to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. with a group of high school students. She is confident because, although she knows her kids are itching to get to something super-exciting like the Air and Space Museum, she has spent time preparing. According to her National Gallery Companion Guide, this museum has original artwork by every single artist that these students have studied in the last three years, and this teacher has a map that will lead directly to them. In fact, her book is filled with sticky notes marking the pages where she can find the history of many of the works. The group enters the West Wing. There should be some paintings by da Vinci here. Sure enough, there they are! The students are wowed. The teacher notices that they are not the same paintings in the guide, but she thinks that they probably couldn’t fit pictures and explanations of all of the works in the book. As the group continues to look around, the teacher becomes confused by the map. She asks a docent nearby to help her find the entrance to the North Wing, where her book tells her she can find work by the artist her students are currently studying, Vermeer. The docent is just as confused as the teacher, and they eventually come to the (now-) hilarious conclusion that this companion guide is for the National Gallery in London, not Washington. Since she had visited neither of those, this poor teacher (it was me—last weekend) didn’t know the difference.
And then there was no plan. I had nine difficult-to-impress teenagers, most of whom really would have preferred to be somewhere else, looking at me, and I have to admit that I experienced a brief moment of panic. Then my researcher mind took over, and I decided to just step back and watch what happened. Some of the students sat down on the sofas and looked disinterested, while others went to explore the nearby rooms. For the most part, they moved quickly around the walls until they saw a name or painting that they recognized. Then I would hear, “Hey! There are paintings by Monet in here!” And then the sofa-sitters would come to look. “Oh, yeah. I remember that one. See? The couple is at the gate.” Sometimes they would comment on how large or how small the paintings were. After all, the pictures we study are all the same size so that they fit nicely in a notebook. The students also noticed the clarity, the colors, and the brushstrokes, which are often lost in color copies of a painting. One student recognized the style of a painting we had not studied by Vincent van Gogh and brought the others over to see several more. Left to themselves, they recognized Gauguin, Botticelli, and Vermeer. “Are we going to study this one? I really like it.” The sofa-sitters continued to wait for others to lead them to something they could relate to. I think that may be due partially to personal interest and partially to the level of “awakening” that has occurred in their minds so far through Mason’s methods. But one thing was clear: Everyone, myself included, felt a spark in the recognition of paintings we had studied. It was like walking, a little awkwardly, into a room crowded with strangers and then seeing a familiar face that makes you walk straight over and think, “Yes, I belong here.”
This experience re-emphasized to me the importance of picture study. Since I had studied much more art than my students had, I was on friendly terms with more of the collection than they could be, because they had never met most of those paintings. I noticed that my spark of recognition was not contagious to them. They did not relate to anything through me; they needed their own direct relationship. But the real power was in the paintings we had all studied together. Then the students could relate not only to the painting and the artist, but also to others with whom they had shared an experience.
There were two whole rooms in the National Gallery in Washington devoted to Rembrandt, and so I took some time to introduce him to the students, thinking it might be nice to study him next year. I wonder if our picture study time will be different since they have already met the originals. I’ll have to let you know. I also wonder if I will ever get to the National Gallery in London. If so, I will be ready.
© 2014 by Jennifer Spencer