This is one of my favorite paintings, the portrait of George Harley Drummond by Sir Henry Raeburn.
It’s not a significant painting. I’m sure if you drew up a list of the top hundred paintings in the world, it wouldn’t be on there. Even on a list of the top thousand. Maybe in the top ten thousand.
The first time I saw it I was wandering the British section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I looked at the museum note next to the painting:
“The foreshortened view of the grazing bay horse is the most complex part of the composition, though not the most important. It is curious, therefore, that the animal’s hindquarters should be so prominently displayed.”
I started giggling, because really, the fact that the horse’s hindquarters are prominent is not curious at all. (I once showed the painting to a fourteen-year-old and asked him what he thought the painter was trying to convey and he answered without hesitation that “the guy was a horse’s ass.”)
I sat on a nearby bench giggling. A very serious couple came by, so I stopped giggling, so as not to disturb them. I still had a huge silly grin on my face. They looked briefly at the picture, and then (although I was not giggling anymore) glared at me. If looks could kill, I would be pushing up daisies. I was breaking the unwritten rule of art museums: always be serious. I know making noise is disruptive to other people, but just sitting there, smiling? They found my mere presence problematic.
I drew two conclusions from this incident:
Lesson One: Art is all about communication.
Art should make you feel, or think, or maybe just observe. It’s not something to be marked off of some list (saw the Mona Lisa, check! Saw the Venus de Milo, check! Saw the Sistine Chapel ceiling, check!). The artist is speaking to you.
Not all art speaks to me, of course. But artists that don’t speak to me (Mark Rothko, say) may speak to you. And some works by artists I normally don’t like draw forth unexpected emotions in me. I am not a Picasso fan, but Guernica made me cry. Salvador Dali’s work, for the most part, I look on with a shrug, but some of his religious paintings make me feel something like reverence. I emphatically dislike Jeff Koontz’s work, except Puppy, which makes me inordinately happy and which is the screen saver on my phone.
I was in the Museum of Modern Art once, during an exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work. I rounded a corner and came across a series of paintings of black and white newspaper pictures of young women. I read the title, Student Nurses, and didn’t need to read the further description. They were paintings of the newspaper pictures of the young women murdered by Richard Speck in Chicago in 1968. In addition to making me feel sad, it caused me to think about the commodification of tragedy. And about how the victims of mass murder aren’t remembered while the killers become household names. And how these young women had gained a fleeting fame that they would never have had if they had lived.
An older couple came by, looked at the description, shrugged and moved on. I was appalled — how could they not find that moving? — but in retrospect, the paintings didn’t speak to them. That’s okay.
And it’s okay for me to laugh at the portrait of George Harley Drummond, too.
Oh, that second lesson? It was this:
Two large apple martinis at the bar in the Met is probably one large apple martini too many.