Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Night at the Museum

This Thursday, from 5 to 10 p.m., the Princeton University Art Museum will be hosting the first of a series of late-night Thursday events in the galleries. Rest assured, there will be free food, so everyone --- art buff or not --- should head out. But even if you don’t know the difference between oil paint and watercolor, you can still enjoy the museum’s broad-ranging collection. Trite though it may sound, there’s something for everyone. Here’s just a sample of what you can find inside --- the tip of the easel, so to speak.

Charles Wilson Peale, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1784

Peale’s portrait of Washington might well be considered the crowning jewel of the Art Museum’s collection. For one thing, it’s a masterpiece of American 18th-century painting: Peale prod
uced many definitive portraits of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton, but his portraits of Washington are particularly valuable, since the original Mr. President was notoriously easel-shy. Of course, this particular portrait is of special interest to Princetonians, because the scene depicted is the Battle of Princeton, which took place just a few miles down the road from campus.

Whistle in form of a seated dwarf with a large headdress, 600-800

One aspect of the Art Museum’s collection that is relatively unique to Princeton is its extensive collection of Pre-Columbian art. Visitors can see a whole range of ancient American artistic production, from Chile (Diaquita culture) to Alaska (Eskimo and Aleut) and Greenland (Inuit), with especially valuable works from Mesoamerica (Olmec and Maya). This dwarf whistle is from the Late Classic Maya period, during which dwarfs were a repeated subject for figurines and whistles, perhaps because aberrations such as dwarfism, epilepsy and crossed eyes were considered special or godly.

Roman bust of a goddess or personification, c. 160-190

The lower level of the Art Museum boasts impressive collections of Classical art from the ancient Mediterranean. The figure in this white marble Roman bust from Asia Minor is not identified with any certainty, but scholars believe that she could be either Aphrodite or Artemis, since both goddesses were frequently pictured with their hair tied in knots on top of their heads. The colossal scale of the bust, as well as the slight downward gaze in the carving of the eyes, suggest that this lady was once part of a high-positioned frieze on some sort of public building --- a bath, perhaps, or a theater.


Peter Cornelisz Kunst, Lamentation, c. 1504-1561

You’re probably familiar with the masterworks of the Italian Renaissance, but the often lesser-known paintings done in Northern Europe during the same time period have a special aesthetic all their own. This Dutch painting depicts the lamentation over Christ’s dead body as it is prepared for burial. The painting’s composition elements --- a dark background, centrally positioned figures --- call the viewer’s attention the emotional responses of the characters involved. This call for compassion makes Lamentation a representative work of Northern Renaissance art, which is characterized by a more deeply personal and spiritual humanity than the often grandiose works of the Italian Renaissance.

Frank Stella ’58, Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass), 1958

Happily for all you modern art buffs, the Art Museum has a brand-new wealth of contemporary masterpieces by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. (The museum officially established contemporary art as a specific collecting category in 2007.) The back room of the upper level of the museum now holds many important abstract and Pop Art works, but this painting is, like the Washington portrait, of particular interest to Princetonians. Stella is a Princeton alum, and this painting was produced the year the same year that he walked out through FitzRandolph Gate toward art stardom. The colorful palette and geometric composition are characteristic of Stella’s personal style, which reacted against the dramatic, heavily dripped and washed canvases of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock. The painting’s parenthetical title is a reference to a famous 1862 painting by early French modernist Edouard Manet.

Image courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum