I recently spent some time in Washington, D.C. with the only thing on my agenda being a visit to the National Gallery of Art.
My goal in visiting the museum was to spend as much time as I could with The Voyage of Life, by artist Thomas Cole. The Voyage of Life is a set of four paintings that represents stages in one’s life: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. I had seen these paintings online and maybe in some textbook a while back, but I wanted to see them in person. I wanted to be able to look closely at the features in a way that is only capable through direct, personal contact.
While I was in D.C., I came across a New York Times article about the experience of being in an art museum. The author, Holland Cotter, examines the experience of seeing art in person. He describes this experience as a sort of relationship, like a dance. While the internet has made access to art instantaneous, which is good, Cotter fears that if the internet becomes our sole medium of experiencing art, we will miss out on so much of what art offers. Art is something that is best experienced slowly and in person.
The temptation to rush through a museum’s many galleries, creating memories through the use of a camera, smart phone, or a well-executed selfie. It is a temptation I have succumbed to many times in my life. I have gone to art museums thinking that my visits were only successful if I saw a lot of paintings and took a lot of pictures. However, all those times of rushing through hallways, frantically looking left and right, was I actually experiencing art? Yes, I was seeing more art, but my focus was on getting from place to place, not being with the art, not having a relationship. Art has the capacity to stir deep emotions. But these emotions don’t arise unless a little effort is put forth.
Spending time with The Voyage of Life left me with awe at the second painting: Youth. The young man gazes dreamily off at an exotic castle in the clouds. The castle is intricate, esoteric, and massive – details I only realized once I saw it in person. The youth is full of ceaseless hope as he steers his boat toward what will surely be his glorious life ahead. This image made me relate to the young man and his daydreaming innocence. I was once so much like him, and maybe I still am.
Experiencing the scope and size of the paintings in person allowed me to see what I otherwise would miss. I could examine the details of the boat as it passed from one stage to the next. I could feel the emotions brought about from the different faces the protagonist has in each painting.
The time I spent with The Voyage of Life over the course of two days left me with memories a simple picture could not. Forcing myself to be patient with the wondrous images in front of me taught me more about myself than any selfie I have ever taken.