If you’ve ever been to the Louvre or the Prado, the National Gallery in London or the Met in New York – let alone the Hermitage – you will know these great galleries are vast and packed with mile on mile of treasures. Got an afternoon to spare? Don’t attempt one of these museums – or rather, don’t be rash enough to try to cram all they contain into a few short hours. It is possible to OD on Art, to see so much you stop seeing at all, and stumble out into the daylight overloaded and numb.
You might want to whisper this, but what if you’re not really into Medieval Altar Pieces, or endless Madonnas, or more Saints than you ever knew existed? It’s OK! Many people share your secret. You don’t have to look at them. You can just go straight to the rooms full of the stuff you do want to see – no one will know.
If I have limited time, my first stop is always the gallery book shop. Here you can thumb quickly through the gallery catalogue, discover the things you really must see, consult the guidebook and go straight to them, guilt free! If I’m in London, there are a couple of old friends I have to visit – two Rembrandts and a Caravaggio. I know where they are in the National Gallery and go right to them if I only have a few minutes – admission there is by donation, so I can just pop in and say hello.
Of course, if you have more time – the whole day perhaps, or a couple of days so that you can split your visit into manageable chunks – you can try and see it all. Sometimes wandering from room to room in an unfamiliar gallery yields wonderful surprises and not consulting the guide first makes entering each room a voyage of discovery. When I went to the Prado, specifically to see the Velasquez’s, I let the rest of the collection take me by surprise. It was thrilling! To come into a room and stumble on Hieronymus Bosch was a revelation – likewise Roger van de Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ – masterpieces I have loved for years and yet known only from books, suddenly in front of me – and perfectly preserved, their jewel-like colours as fresh as the day they were painted nearly 500 years ago. Wonderful! A long room full of Raphaels. Rubens for a hundred yards. A fabulous and unexpected Van Dyck. Marvelous Spanish painters that were new to me – and so much more. I was glad, for once, that I had not prepped for this visit, so that the whole thing was an unfolding dream.
My first visit to the Louvre was quite different, we had very little time and company that had a low threshold for artistic exposure, so I picked up the catalogue and we sat down for coffee. We quickly agreed things that we would all like to see and made directly for them. I was happy to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Caravaggio’s scandalous and wonderful ‘Death of the Virgin’, Sharon enjoyed a breeze through the Egyptian collection and my daughter’s boyfriend loved the ceilings, so everyone was happy.
If you have the time and like a challenge, make yourself see the parts of these magnificent galleries you thought you might like to miss. You might stumble on an artist you have never heard of and find you love or discover that, actually, those Medieval Altar painters really knew what they were doing and that their beautifully preserved works are real treasures you’d have hated yourself for missing. And if you want to fall in love with the Madonna, Sassoferato’s simply exquisite portrait in the National Gallery is a great place to begin.
Above all, there is no substitute for seeing great paintings in person, it’s a visceral, thrilling experience that no photograph of them can ever match. No matter how familiar you think you are with a work from books, the real thing will always yield surprises, and be so much richer. You will likely be poorer however, especially if you’re like me, because having found all of these new artists, you now have to buy the books!