As part of my self-education in art I attended art shows with a notebook in hand, like a kid on a school trip, and I sketched small reproductions of paintings and sculptures that my eyes were attracted to.
The Metropolitan in New York City put together all its Dutch paintings in one show, more than two hundred pictures of astounding quality: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and their peers. It was a little strange, walking the rooms and looking at the paintings not with the awed eyes of an art lover, but with the no less awed but somewhat sober eyes of a craftsman. As I stood there sketching, it may have appeared to an observer that I was missing out on the emotional response to the works. That's not how it felt to me at all; in fact, I was truly seeing things for the first time, truly observing, taking in, admiring, and appreciating the sights in front of me. It was a highly emotional experience, but if I had gone berserk with emotion... I wouldn't be able to draw a thing! So I kind of “sublimated” the emotion, kept it in, swallowed it and put it back out as a drawing. It was no less emotional an experience, and in fact it was a rather more multi-dimensional experience than many previous visits to the museum.
There's a certain skill in standing in front of a masterpiece in a crowded room and focusing yourself for the minute or two that it takes to do a basic little sketch. You can't be too bothered by the people around you; you can't worry about what they're thinking and feeling about you. From time to time I could tell that someone was looking over my shoulder and glancing over my drawing. Did the person like my drawing or dislike it? Was the person annoyed that I was standing there? I didn't give it much thought, because I was invested primarily in the process of sketching, not the process of worrying about what other people were thinking of me! So, part of the fun is in occupying a crowded little space for however long you need to, not bump into people, not let people bump into you... look and sketch... and move on. I stayed in the Met show for about ninety minutes, and I did 15 or 18 sketches of varying degrees of skill, from the blobby to the surprisingly adept.
I went to the Louvre a few times too, and drew mostly sculptures in the huge inner gardens. The Louvre is a magnificent museum, but let me confess a dark secret: sometimes I find it a chore visiting it. I think it displays some of its art in a haughty manner that alienates the viewer, while the Met in New York consider its visitors as friends worthy of attention and comfort. There are rooms in the Louvre packed to the gills with paintings of historical merit but—to my eyes—little artistic beauty; those rooms are archival, showing you bits of French or European history while squashing you as an individual, as a human being. In those rooms I feel like the museum is saying to me, “You ignoramus. Look at these big, big paintings. Monarchs. Military campaigns. Generals. This is true greatness. You, on the other hand, you're so little you could disappear right now and nothing in the world would change. Au revoir, little person! Come again if you dare!” The paintings are way up on huge walls, too many busy images displayed too close together. I don't get the same feeling at the Met. It's more democratic, more person-oriented instead of archive-oriented. The Met says, “Hey, guys! Swing right in and share in all this beauty! Don't care for historical stuff? Not to worry! Next gallery is full of treats for the modern eye!”
You art lovers out there—what about if you help me change my mind by sharing your positive experiences of the Louvre with us?