I’m captivated by a painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It’s The Eruption of Vesuvius by the nineteenth century English painter Sebastian Pether, and it draws me like a magnet every time I visit. The Nelson is a big place, full of beautiful pieces arranged in rooms and along corridors, and Pether’s painting is relatively small. Locating it requires purposeful navigation, and at times I find myself lured in alternative directions by colorful works I discover along the way. But Vesuvius is my touchstone; it’s my destination and my reward. Because I work in a creative field, my imagination is often taxed to the limit. In dry periods when the ideas don’t come I turn to external sources of inspiration, filling my head with images that will ultimately trigger a new thought. Vesuvius has fired my synapses more than once.
I’m not an art expert. I know very little about technique, and my interpretations of the stories the artists intend to tell are almost always refuted by professional critics who write about such things. But to be honest, I don’t really care about technique, and I’d rather make up my own stories, anyway. What I do care about is effect and how that effect is achieved through color and composition. The colors of Vesuvius feel like the end of the world. There are deep grays and sooty whites in the sky, with black silhouettes of doomed foliage in the foreground. The volcano itself is the focal point, of course, and you would expect the reds, oranges, and whites of the fiery eruption to be aggressive and harsh. But they’re not. They blend to create a menacing glow that seems to suggest the worst is yet to come. There’s tension between the piece and me, the viewer. I’m glad not to be in that place at that moment in time, but, like the eye of the white moon in the distance, I look on, trying to isolate particular details in the scene that produce such a powerful overall impression.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is an introvert’s paradise; Touring it is something I really must do by myself. I like the quiet experience of traveling from one story to the next, and talking about the pieces with others just breaks the spell. I also tend to annoy companions with my touring methods. I travel both slowly and erratically. I may spend 10 minutes standing in one place looking at a face or a tree, but then fly through galleries that hold little interest for me. I was lucky yesterday—a Saturday!—that the museum traffic was extremely light as the museum opened. I was almost alone for a long while. The Kansas City Plaza Art Fair was going on just a block away, which helped to divert the usual Saturday crowd from the Nelson, so several of the galleries were either empty or nearly so.
As I mentioned above, I’m not an art expert. But I am a visual person, and I enter each gallery with an agenda: I’m looking for color, first and foremost, and how those colors work together, regardless of the subject matter. I’m also interested in how light is depicted, and how that depiction affects color. Still lifes and floral portraits are my favorites for color.
Then, of course, I like the stories told by the paintings. Some of them are so psychologically complex, you could write whole novels inspired by a single scene. Vesuvius is of this type. But even a portrait can launch a thousand questions to be answered in narrative form. Take local favorite Thomas Hart Benton’s Portrait of the Artist’s Sister, for example. What’s in her expression? Sadness? Expectation? Longing? Resolution? Resignation? Boredom? What’s she waiting for? A train? A friend? What just happened? What’s about to happen? It’s actually more fun wondering than it would be knowing.
I’m most drawn to the paintings in the Nelson-Atkins collection, but really, there are so many beautiful things to see—sculptures, artifacts, furniture, crystal(!) that you could easily lose three quarters of your day there. I’ve posted some of my favorite pieces below (well, I mean my favorites on this particular visit; my favorites tend to change each time I go). There are even some included from circa 19xx (which, yes, I remember, is the proper era for this blog).
Pieces from Circa 19xx
What I’ve included here is a tiny fraction of the fantastic collection at the Nelson. If you are traveling through Kansas City, a visit here is a must-do. As locals, we are extremely lucky to have access to this beautiful resource. And it’s free!! If you park in their garage, the fee is $10, which, in my opinion, is an incredible value.
I had my picture taken at Pompeii a few years go. In it I’m wearing sunglasses and shorts, a tourist, smiling at the camera with a green, chipper-looking Mt. Vesuvius behind me. It’s hard to reconcile Pether’s brooding, boiling Vesuvius with mine. And yet, I suppose there’s something instructive in both of them. Isn’t life amazing?
Until next time…