Meghan Cox Gurdon: Why go to the shark painting when you can gaze at Sargent's 'Repose'?

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"I think we should go see modern paintings."

"What about Italian Renaissance?"

"Blech. Too many ugly fat babies."

"Hey, the babies may be fat, but the paintings are spectacular. Plus, those babies are Jesus."

"Yeah, you shouldn't call Jesus fat and ugly."

"I'm not! It's just -- "

"I know!" said the 7-year-old. "Let's go see the shark painting!"

This was a good idea. Everyone liked John Singleton Copley's dramatic "Watson and the Shark," which depicts a young blond man getting his leg bitten off by a toothy monster in Havana Harbor. We squared our shoulders and began to push our way through the weekend throngs at the National Gallery of Art. Our path led through the sybaritic temptations of the gift shop ("Oh! I need new colored pencils! Can I get some colored pencils? Why not? Please?"), up some stairs and on to the gleaming second floor.

It was packed with visitors. In the way of most museumgoers, we milled around pleasantly for a moment before orienting ourselves, and were heading in the direction of the shark painting when we were abruptly diverted by a mysterious process known, I believe, as serendipity.

"Girls, let's just pop in here for a -- "

"Oh," gasped one of the older girls, "There it is!"

"It" was a small blueish canvas much loved in our family: John Singer Sargent's "Repose." The painting shows a dark-haired woman in a sumptuous teal dress, wrapped in a shawl and reclining on a sofa. Up close, the skirt is all fat brush strokes; from a slight distance, the eye transforms it into rich fabric so realistic that you can almost hear it rustle.

"How about we stay here for a little while?"

"Definitely!"

There was a couch in the middle of the gallery, and we quickly commandeered it. Each girl busied herself digging out pencils and paper and started to draw. (The oldest stationed herself with her knees up and her notebook turned away, to discourage spies.) I crossed my arms and leaned back, in inelegant and ill-clad imitation of the woman in the painting, and drank in its beauty.

Minutes ticked past. Half an hour went by, then 45 minutes. The girls were engrossed in their sketching. I gazed like a lotus-eater at the fabric on that skirt.

Other museum patrons passed through the room, most stopping only briefly before moving on again. Several people went straight to "Repose," took snapshots with their cellphones and walked off. Each time, the interaction took no more than a few seconds.

I toyed with feeling superior: Look at these philistines, taking pictures of paintings they can't be bothered even to look at for a full minute. But in truth, I was sympathetic, and anyway had no grounds for superiority. There is something elusive about intensely beautiful art that is a kind of torment: You can't hold a painting like "Repose," or consume it or completely feed the aesthetic hunger it engenders. All you can do is look at it. Taking a snapshot is one small way, if you will, of biting down on it and making it yours.

The whole afternoon wore away, and we were starting to get as drowsy as the woman in the painting, when a ring tone recalled us to ourselves. Where the heck were we, the rest of the family wondered?

Ten minutes later, we'd recovered our jackets from the cloakroom and were pushing the heavy doors that open on to Constitution Avenue when the youngest girl stopped short.

"What's the matter?"

"I just remembered," she said, with a wry grin. "We forgot to see the shark painting!"

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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