The Community of Art

By on July 30th, 2018 in William Merritt Chase

Communities are defined by people: families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues who share a way of life, a place to live, to work, or to enjoy common interests. We live in a community and share our lives, thoughts, and hopes with other people. Yet our lives are also influenced and shaped by inanimate objects, and I would argue that some of them — art objects, specifically — have the power to create community too.

When I moved to New York City after college, my first job was at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an entry-level, administrative position in the registrar department; definitely not the most glamorous job, but for a 23-year-old who just arrived from Eastern Europe, it was a dream come true. I could spend every lunch hour in the galleries with all the great art I had read about in books. It was exhilarating. It felt like meeting old friends and making new ones, which definitely helped me, considering I did not know many people in New York and missed my friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Spending time with the art I had waited so long to see in person made me feel less lonely. Seeing familiar faces, so to speak, helped me fit in (or at least feel that I did). That was the first time I understood fully that art creates community, and I felt at home. I was learning new stories about people, places, and things, and it was then that I decided to dwell professionally in that community — the community created by art.  

Strozzi Chapel, 14th century, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Some years later, I was living in Florence, Italy, and writing a dissertation on the private chapels of Florentine families in the fourteenth century. While in one of the chapels I was working on, I was taking notes on the frescoes inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy when a woman came in, kneeled in front of the altar, and started to pray. I felt awkward, as if witnessing something I shouldn’t. As I went out of the chapel to continue my note-taking elsewhere, I thought about that woman’s relationship with the space as compared to mine. I was looking at the building as a work of architecture filled with art (frescoes, altarpiece, stained glass windows), while she looked at it as a place of prayer. My art environment was her religious home. I thought back to my days at MoMA and the realization that art can offer us a context, a story (or collection of stories), and a community in which we find comfort, friends, and support.

So when I started to reflect upon what community means to me in the context of our museum blog, these memories flooded back. I jumped at the opportunity to articulate the same thoughts today from the perspective of almost 20 years spent in the museum community. Happily, my professional experience has not only confirmed, but actually strengthened my belief that the world of art enriches our lives on multiple levels: aesthetic (who cannot use a little beauty on a daily basis?); educational (knowing something about a style, an artist or a historical period does help us decipher the meaning); inspirational (so many works of art functioned within a system of belief, and their power was undeniable); and conversational (we talk about it with friends or even strangers). Most importantly, art tells us stories, and it is through storytelling that relationships are built. Every work of art has multiple stories, and for me, discovering them one by one has the opposite effect of peeling an onion. The more layers you go through, the more you get — the better you understand the work, and the closer you feel to it.

William Merritt Chase, Young Woman with Red Flowers, Oil on canvas, 1904. Gift of Gertrude Lundberg Richards, CFAM 1967.19

There is a painting in the collection of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, a portrait of a young woman holding a little bouquet of flowers by American nineteenth-century master William Merritt Chase. She is shown from the waist up against a simple background, in a three-quarter pose, her head slightly tilted and turned towards us. She looks straight at us and there is something sad, or at least pensive, in her gaze. It is tempting to speculate that the sadness is perhaps connected with the flowers she holds close to her face. Were they given to her by a friend she lost? By a lover who left? Do they remind her of somebody who is far away? Or is she simply thinking of the delicacy of the red petals? One could weave many stories around this rather simple composition, and that is precisely where the beauty and power of art lay: there are as many interpretations as there are people looking at a particular work of art. And then there are stories about the artists themselves, their colorful lives and interesting friends. Chase was renowned in the artistic circles of New York City as a painters’ painter, “artistic” in everything he did, from the way he dressed to the exotic Russian wolfhounds he kept to his studio, which was a famous gathering place. He was also a distinguished teacher adored by his students – and one of those students added to the stories we know about the painting. The student, who later donated this work to the Cornell, was in the studio when Chase painted the portrait and gave us a first-hand account of the process. We found out interesting little details, such as the fact that the woman portrayed was a professional model — “a lovely girl” — and that the flowers were actually pink and not red as they are painted. More importantly, perhaps, we found out something about the painter’s method and process: he painted this portrait in one sitting of only two hours, with no retouching or preliminary drawing, just drawing with the brush on the canvas. Learning this from someone who witnessed it back in 1904, more than a hundred years ago, is like hearing a secret from a friend. It makes us feel more intimately connected with the artist, the sitter, even the student. It fills in details of the story which builds our relationship with the work of art. For me, it defines a community that I share with this painting: it invites me into a world where I can dwell comfortably and not feel alone.

And it is exactly this feeling — of not being alone, of being in good company — that made me dedicate my career to inviting people into our museums, and peeling the layers of meaning back one by one until everybody can discover new friends, and find themselves in a new, treasured community. It is also what we hope to create for the readers of this museum blog.

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