Titian. Venus with a Mirror. ca 1555. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D,C.
Sunday mornings make me want to stroll through an art museum. Not a forced march, mind you, and not culture creep in a blockbuster cue, 20 seconds per viewer per painting. I want to stroll and be surprised. I want to visit old flames like Venus with a Mirrorand rediscover passionate engagement.
Were I in Washington this morning, I’d take the Metro to the Archives stop and head for the Constitution Avenue entrance of the National Gallery of Art. I’d plan to arrive just before the grand bronze doors were unlocked. While waiting I might muse on the historical fact that President James Garfield was assassinated on the spot in 1881, when it was the site of a busy railroad station.
Then I’d sweep up the white marble staircase to the black marble rotunda. Returning to this glorious space never fails to move me. I find a bench, sit, and soak it in. Over the years I’ve chosen the rotunda with its cathedral light, its resplendent fountain and resonant echoes as the sacred place where I honor my parents. For me it is a place suffused with meaning and emotion, what Pierre Nora calls a lieu de memoir. Since I am now the steward of my parents’ Yellow Springs house, memories of them are always near to hand. I come to this soaring rotunda to celebrate their spirits. And I thank them for bringing me to the National Gallery of Art as a child.
After the rotunda I choose a direction for my stroll. I could turn east and head for the Monet gallery that is sure to hold Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day. Or I turn west and head for the Titians. The Monet gallery will have relaxing sofas and a stream of people passing through. Bracketed by innumerable Madonna’s with Child and popely/princely portraits, the Titian gallery may be the route less traveled. If there’s a sofa, too, it might be a hidden garden of delight.
I spent a week reading and writing in these galleries in the spring of 1999, three decades after my parents brought me here for the first time. Three months after my mother’s death, it became a spiritual journey to coming to rest here. (See Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can for Mary Lou’s most-cherished painting at NGA.) In the Monet gallery I’d try to read Paul Tucker’s biography of the painter, but I spent more time listening to snatches of conversation as others adored the paintings. I realized then that my experience of art in museums draws as much on the social context overheard in the moment as on direct visual perception. That’s how a half-blind flaneur looks at paintings.
In the Titian gallery I sank into the sofa and read John Hale’s magisterial history, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. What a place to read such a book! I filled a notebook with writing about art and history. I paused often to gaze across the gallery at Venus with a Mirror. At a distance of 15 feet I couldn’t begin to see any detailed form beyond a blur. I knew the form; it was a lieu de memoir. What I could see, or apprehend, was the warm, rosy glow of the goddess’s skin.
When I first saw the painting at age 14, I learned how the experience of art could arouse me. Arouse is not a metaphor. Strolling through a museum with Ms. Modigliani is the most enchanting kind of foreplay on a rainy afternoon. At 14 I was amazed to think that Titian must have felt this way about Venus (and the artist’s model) when he painted her. He was approaching 70 then, and he kept the painting in his studio until the day he died. I have to smile now at callow youth and everything left to learn about the sensuality of old men.
At 14 I also apprehended something about painting that would take years to articulate. What makes an oil painting distinct from every other form of visual representation (including this digital image of an oil painting) is the way oil-based pigment absorbs light. Pigment not only reflects light, it absorbs it to some degree and depth, depending on the thickness of paint and varnish applied to the canvas. Titian may have been the first painter to discover how light could animate skin tones. Warmth of fleshly color, not erotic form, breathes the palpable, glowing life into his nudes. In this art Titian remains the master and Venus his muse.