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Small and Beautiful by Thomas Marsh,


Thomas Marsh, Fine Art Instructor (since 1981)

Since November I have had the good fortune of three magnificent museum experiences:  at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC,  the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The National Gallery and the Met, naturally, are vast and their collections provide the highest levels of aesthetic experience  for museum goers and researchers. I would like to comment on a VERY small sampling of works in these two museums, the Vermeer paintings, and compare these to a current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

My numbers may be mistaken by one or two, but if my memory serves me correctly the Met has four Vermeer paintings in their collection, and the National Gallery has three. Vermeer, a Dutch painter of the 1600’s, worked very small (think of your 11 x 14 drawing pad as about the typical size of his paintings), most likely made use of the camera obscura to achieve heightened realism, and produced relatively few paintings in his life (compared to a huge abundance of works by his contemporary, Rembrandt).  And, Vermeer’s work is breathtakingly realistic in his handling of light. To recap: his works are small, they are few, they likely utilized some technical means (the camera obscura), and they are among the greatest works of Western Civilization.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, is a very small museum.  It has a current exhibition which focuses on the woman who, in terms of numbers, has been portrayed more often than any other woman in history: Mary, the mother of Jesus. The curator of the exhibition is none other than the director of the Museo dell’Opera del  Duomo (the museum of the works of the Cathedral) in Florence, Italy.  In this exhibition there are works by many legendary artists: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Fra Filippo Lippi, to name three, and the overall character of the exhibition is this: a concentration of masterpieces.  I have been fortunate to visit many of the world’s great museums, and I must say that this show has one of the greatest concentrations of masterworks in a small space that I have ever seen.

When visiting museums, I make it a habit to bring a small sketchbook, to do quick studies (rather than copies) of works I feel are significant. Needless to say, my head was spinning at this Mary exhibition in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. One very special experience was to do a small (3” x 4”) pencil study of a Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi.

So what do these experiences have in common? The Vermeer works are small paintings, and very small in number. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is very small, and thus the Mary exhibition is small. Yet the aesthetic depth of these works is overwhelmingly grand, and stunningly beautiful. So I urge you, as students, to be lifelong students of masterworks. Never cease to study from them by drawing them; and seek out greatness, or even mere quality, often in small places… perhaps in a small museum or gallery near your home!

P.S. The AAU summer program in Italy would also be great place to start. I speak from experience: I led the very first one in 1999.