(Almost) Alone in Kansas City’s Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

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.

Nelson Atkins
Eruption of Vesuvius, my favorite painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (“The Nelson”), is very small. There it is in the corner…

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.

Nelson Atkins Pether Vesuvius
…and here it is up close. I’ve spent many long minutes over the years watching this scene, from just this vantage point, waiting for the destruction. A picture of the picture is inadequate; you really have to see it in person; the overhead lights of the museum creates glints on the brushstrokes, making the fire seem alive.

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.   

Nelson Atkins
Christ and the Centurion, ca. 1575 by Paolo Caliari, Called Veronese, and Workshop. I mean, honestly, how beautiful is this? It makes you gasp, doesn’t it? I should also mention that the building in which the Nelson-Atkins collection is housed is a gem in and of itself. It was built in 1933.

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.

Two-Tiered Still Life with Fruit and Sunset Landscape, ca. 1867 by Severin Roesen. Color! I love this painting. Sigh.

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.

Portrait of the Artist’s Sister (Mildred), 1913 by Thomas Hart Benton. This portrait could launch a million stories.

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).

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Portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse, 1784 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Nelson Atkins

Nelson Atkins
Cut glass pieces. Notice the ghost image reflected on the plexi case around these pieces. You can see that the vase on the right stands atop its own pedestal. What a stunner.
The painting at left is one of my perennial favorites. Talk about a story!  This one makes you want to avoid the pains of Hell at all costs. The Last Judgment, c. 1525-1530 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The Knights of the Roundtable! (Actually, these date from the 16th Century). Tell me these fellows don’t fire the imagination!
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Sadly, these aren’t available at Pier 1 Imports or Crate and Barrel. These are handpainted little masterpieces from 1848.
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I’ve ordered one of these for my sitting room. (If only!)


Pieces from Circa 19xx

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Grand Canyon, 1912 by Thomas Moran. I love, love, love this painting. This is a new find for me; I don’t recall seeing it on my other visits to the Nelson. Moran created an amazing illusion here; when you look into this painting, the perceived depth is really astonishing. You can lose yourself in the mist and take a great fall. (I apologize for the weird angle; I was trying to avoid light reflections).
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Tiffany! circa 1902-1919. Sigh.  I mean really, sigh.
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Hôtel de France, 1928 by Stuart Davis.  

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…

Jennifer Passariello


  1. Barb

    The Nelson is one of my favorite places to visit in Kansas City! We are so fortunate to have this incredible collection here in the Midwest. Your photos are wonderful, Jennifer, and I loved your comments. For many years I took my AP English students on a spring field trip to visit the Nelson and it was always a memorable day that inspired many students to return on their own. Love this museum!

    • jkpassariello

      Thanks, Barb! The Nelson would be a fantastic place to take AP English students! So many things there to inspire writing, so many stories to tell!

    • jkpassariello

      Yeah, it’s a great place to go when you need a mental break and a little inspiration. I never tire of it, no matter how many times I go.

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