Imagine if you could see the pen Beethoven used to write his Symphony No. 5. Or the chisel Michelangelo used to sculpt his David. Art lovers find endless fascination in the materials of artists — a pen, a brush, even a rag can become sacred objects, humanizing a work of art.
And now, at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, visitors can see some of the materials that impressionist Mary Cassatt once used — three well-loved, large wooden boxes of pastels from distinguished Paris art supply stores. Each box is filled with stubby pieces of pastels, some worn down to half an inch, others almost untouched.
I always want to touch sculptures like this, the marble is so impossibly smooth, it seems like it should be touched, like that’s the way it should be appreciated.
I’m really into this (bonus) assignment/the please do not touch video because it makes us consider our limited way of viewing most art. In our human experience we want to experience things fully, we try and engage all our senses in everything, but in visual art, we limit ourselves to just sight, just looking at a work and appreciating it’s beauty. But really are we appreciating it fully? Certainly it’s important to preserve works of art, but wouldn’t it be amazing to also be able to feel the surfaces of impressionist paintings? Touch sculptures and have them feel like flesh? Be able to feel the cracks frescos recovered from the roman villas; to touch them and think, ‘now I was here too.’
If you’re planning to become an artist, here’s one nice way to do it: be independently wealthy, easily pay your bills without needing to sell your own work, buy up the paintings of your marvelously talented friends, and then give their works to the nation. A little-known 19th-century artist named Gustave Caillebotte’s did just that and there's a big show devoted to him at the National Gallery right now.
Caillbotte’s best-known work, owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, depicts one of those rainy Paris days. His 1877 painting Paris Street, Rainy Day, shows top-hatted men and woman in long dresses walking on wet cobblestone streets past imposing wedge-shaped buildings. They are sheltered under dark umbrellas.
“It’s what we think about Paris — it’s what you see in movies,” says Chicago curator Gloria Groom.
Photo credit: (top) RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resour/Courtesy National Gallery of Art, (center) The Art Institute of Chicago/Courtesy National Gallery Of Art, (bottom) Private Collection/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art