This past week, I had the pleasure of speaking about art to two audiences of art lovers in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to look out at a sea of faces all of whom love something that has long been part of my lifelong practice of joy.
Loving art is, of course, part of my father’s legacy to me. Talking about what I learned from him, as well as the rich, engaged, and joy-filled life that loving art has given us both is always a gift.
As an added bonus, I got to share one of my favorite stories about my father.
Vincent Price fell in love with art when he was eight years old. His older sister had moved out and left behind a book about art, which featured reproductions of all the great masterworks around the world. He pored over that book until he knew them all by heart. And I really do mean by HEART.
When he was seventeen, he had saved up enough money to go on a three-month tour of Europe to see the great cities and museums in England, Holland, Germany, Italy and France. He kept a journal, which the incredible Peter Fuller has digitized into an award-winning website.
To see my father’s journal of his first trip to Europe, please click this link: https://vincentpricejournal.wordpress.com/
Of the many incredible experiences my dad had while abroad, this story is my favorite.
While at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, he found himself standing in front of Andrea Del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies. He was so moved by the beauty of the Madonna's face that he started to weep.
Then he felt a gentle touch on his arm, and turned to see an older lady, who was smiling at him.
“Do you want to see the one that makes me cry?” she said.
Now you’ve got to understand that, art lover or no, my dad was still a teenage boy, who was mortified to be seen crying.
So, he mumbled, “Oh, no, I’ve just got something in my eye."
To which the lady quietly replied, “Yes, beauty."
My dad never forgot that moment. And never again was he ashamed to proclaim his love for art. He later wrote, “If I could prescribe a single rule for looking at a work of art, it would be to enjoy it. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we enjoy our tears just as much as we enjoy our laughter. The only moments of life that are a bore are when we don’t care one way or another."
I think I love that story so much because I, too, have had my own embarrassments about my love of beauty.
As an art history major at Williams College, which has the reputation of churning out some of the most influential art historians, curators and museum directors in the country, I was determined to be “taken seriously” as a scholar. My friend Mitchell still likes to tease this now health-conscious, outdoorsy, spiritual woman about the chain-smoking, arty, intense college student I once was.
The funny thing is that that is not at all how I had grown up. According to my dad, art was to be lived with; art was to be loved and enjoyed --sometimes even laughed at (or with). It should never become the province of the intellectual elite. Art connects people to their hearts, the world around them, and to one another. Art, my dad taught me, is to be enjoyed — whatever that means at any given moment, whatever the response.
But once I got to college, I threw out that approach and donned my intellectual hat. I studied the fertile connection between the art and lifestyles of Northern German Expressionist artists in relation to the German colonies in West Africa — and particularly the European misconceptions about what it meant to be “primitive”. I loved what I was learning — and particularly connected to the African art, which had been created from such a holistic place of connection to nature, ritual, community, beauty, and spiritual practice.
The woodcuts of Erich Heckel (die Bruecke) and a Punu mask, Gabon, West Africa.
But here’s my sunny little secret: Whenever I went to museums, after I had studiously worked my way through whatever serious art I thought I “should" to see, I inevitably found myself standing in front of a canvas depicting the purely beautiful — landscapes, still lives, animals, gorgeous interplays of color and texture and pattern. I snuck in these experiences almost furtively, as though ashamed of loving beauty.
It took me decades (and becoming an art dealer) to understand that in art, as in life, should is a four-letter word. All that shoulding all over myself about art (and lots of other things) almost undid all the joy I had found growing up around and seeing so much art, and learning from a man who felt that art gave him faith in humanity.
About 10 years ago, I was asked to design a rug collection. As I was thinking about the theme for the series, suddenly I realized that I had been hiding my love of beauty — even sometimes from myself. By that I mean that I still carried around with me that teenager who thought that being an “art expert” was a very serious endeavor requiring proof of my qualifications, i.e. knowing “good and important” art looked like. . .and “pretty” wasn’t one of the attributes anyone worth their mettle was talking about.
So, I decided to design the entire rug collection as a tribute to what I came to realize had always felt like my "guilty pleasures" — the artists and pieces that had always secretly made my heart sing.
Perhaps my most enduring example of this is a canvas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to which I make a special trip whenever I am in the City. It is by an American Impressionist painter named John Henry Twachtman. Now, I like American Impressionism as much as the next person, and I like some of Twachtman’s landscapes when I see them at museums. But that’s about all. Except for Arques-la-Bataille, the painting at the Met that I feel in love with the moment I saw it. At first I tried to intellectualize my response to it. But as each trip to New York brought yet another pilgrimage to sit in front of Arques-la-Bataille, I finally shut my mind up and just recognized it for what it was: This painting brings me the deepest sense of peace and quiet joy of any piece of art in the world. I used to sneak quick peaks, but now I place myself squarely in front of it and just soak it in, down to the marrow of my soul.
Over the years, I have shared it with many people — bringing them with me to sit in front of it, or sending them there to see it. Some get it. Some don’t. But that’s not the point. For me, it is a kind of nirvana.
And that, I realized finally, with much wrestling with my soul, is the whole point: It is okay — no, more than that — it is imperative that we love what we love without needing to justify or explain it to ourselves. . .unreservedly, unabashedly, and with joy, joy joy!
My parents loved to humorously quote what they recognized as overused phrases in slightly ironic ways. So, often when contemplating buying something, my mother could be heard saying, “Well, you know, a thing of beauty. . .” To which my father would nod with a knowing grin.
Referencing Keats’ poem became their shorthand for their love of collecting. As Keats wrote,
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness. . .
My whole life I have loved beauty, but it took me deep into adulthood to come out of the beauty closet. Now, I allow myself to just revel in any imagery that touches my heart.
This week, I had the pleasure of going to the Cleveland Museum of Art with the wonderful gallerist Nancy Cintron, where she shared with me the paintings she loved the most. One of the afternoon's highlights was hearing her talk about Jean Louis David's sensuous painting of Cupid and Psyche after a night of wild abandon. She pointed out details like the butterflies, the way Cupid's foot was just about to pull the covers off, the interplay of textures and mostly the blissed-out smirk on Cupid’s face as he tried to sneak away before daylight. Her adoration of this painting — her favorite in the museum — made me feel her joy and see it (and I painter I had heretofore only merely appreciated) through her adoring gaze. Oh what fun!
She also shared the story of the first time she had visited the museum with her brother -- her oohing and aahing in excitement, awe and wonder over what she was seeing caused him so much embarrassment that he asked her to be quiet.
Truth is, we should all be oohing and aahing every time we see a piece of art that moves our hearts or stirs our souls into love!
Every week in which I engage in this daily practice of joy, I learn something new. This week, as I talked about art and had the pleasure of walking through museums, I was reminded of what might well be the most basic tenet of joy: If we make the mistake of believing that we have to grow up and out of the things that brought us the kind of joy we felt when we were younger, we’re sunk before we’ve even set sail! A big part of the daily practice of joy is banishing our adult shoulds. That’s why it is so wonderful to be around children, or those rare adults who still have easy access to their childlike joy. Hanging out with my friend Pat, who is one of the most fun people I know — and still loves to jump into puddles or piles of autumn leaves — is an instant joy infusion.
And so is letting beauty just make my heart sing.
If we all stopped trying to (or fearing we won’t) find joy in our heads, we’d discover that it has never left the place from which it originates. . .our hearts.
When I was in college, I interned at Christies in New York. We were paid a pittance, but more than compensated by getting to go on weekly field trips to all the major museums in New York City. Of my many extraordinary experiences (including getting to see a Van Gogh being cleaned at the Met), learning about the collection at the Frick ended up helping me define my own love of art.
Mr. Frick had purchased the glorious Manet Bullfighter. It was one of the prizes of his collection. So, when another Manet from this series came on the market a few years later, Mr. Frick’s art dealer encouraged him to buy it. When Frick refused, the art dealer was appalled, telling his client that it was imperative that he have both to elevate his collection. To which Mr. Frick purportedly replied, “No. I only buy paintings that make me happy."
Even then, mired as I was in my earnest intellectual fervor, that got through to me. Why? Because I knew it was true!
I still love all kinds of art for all kinds of reasons — the intellectual, the spiritual, the thought-provoking, and even the humorous (intended or not). But these days I’m no longer ashamed to make a special pilgrimage to my favorite pieces of art, or to discover myself oohing and aahing over a beautiful painting, sculpture, stained glass window, or any other form of art that just flat out makes my insides SMILE!!
When I was a little girl, whenever we went to a museum, my parents engaged me in whatever art we were seeing by asking me to choose my favorite piece. The rules of our game were very simple: Do not try to pick the best piece, the most important piece, the one you think you “should” pick. Choose the piece, my mother always said, that you would like to wake up to every single day.
Last night I had the immense pleasure of accompanying a wonderful eight-year-old girl named Anais, whom I had just met, on a tour of the Vincent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles. We had only met ten minutes earlier, but when I asked her which piece she liked, she ran over without hesitation to a luminous triptych of the Los Angeles skyline at night. I leaned down to her and said, “Is that one your favorite?” She smiled and quietly said, “Yes!”
“You know what?” I replied. “That’s my favorite, too! It’s beautiful."
It’s that simple.
May all our shared joys remain that simple, that true, that pure.
A thing of beauty IS a joy forever.