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Rembrandt in America: Through a Child’s Eyes
Maya Meets Mommy’s Latest Assignment
Excited to showcase the great Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn to my four year old, Maya, I decided to bring home the catalog for the exhibition. For Maya, flipping through exhibition catalogs is as commonplace as reading an Eric Carle book. We sat down one the bed, and I said, “Tell me what you think.”
After a decade working with the public, I would like to say that I was prepared to hear whatever answer she gave. But, I can’t. After flipping through the book, Maya said, “It’s boring.”
Surprised and dismayed, I said, “Do you think the people looked bored?”
“I don’t know. It’s boring.”
It is worth saying that I have taught in the museum’s Dutch galleries for years. I sat on the committee as these galleries were being installed. So, basically, my kid was telling me one of my professional labors was a bore. Luckily, laughing is my tried and true coping mechanism.
After my chuckling subsided, I regrouped. And, I said, “That’s okay. Actually, I think the opposite. Can I show you some things that I like about these paintings?” We spent a few minutes looking and talking about some of my favorite paintings.
The one big lesson here is one that parents, including me, sometimes forget that we all like different things— and that is okay. I can’t express how much my 2 year old loved The Lure of Painted Poetry. For Maya, the best exhibition to date was Treasures of Heaven, a show that had shiny objects and interesting hairstyles. Liking art doesn’t imply that you have to like all art.
On Piquing Children’s Interest
The next morning, in the car, Maya mentioned, “You know, why did his wife have a globe on the table?” There is that saying about developing children’s palates that they need to taste it many times. Sometimes it is about piquing the children’s interest. First, you have to make it relevant. My daughter loves dressing up. In many ways the sitters in the portraits in the exhibition were playing dress up; they were using their adornment as way to define themselves.
Relevancy is often tied with familiarity. Small factoids or bits of information can be empowering to anyone learning about art, especially children. For example, I had told my daughter that the model for Minerva might have been Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia.
In the galleries, when the show opened, Maya and I went to see the art in person. I promise you, no photograph, no matter how good, can rival the actual painting. That frilly lace looks like dots and squiggles close up. The portraits almost seem to breathe—and close up there isn’t a trace of brushstrokes.
When Maya got up to Flora, she saw a kindred spirit. There before her was a woman dressed in a billowing shirt and rich yellow silken skirt. And, then there was the je ne sais quoi of the flowery hat.
The Power of Inspiration
For young hands, art museums can be a challenge. Children want to do. Our museum offers children’s classes during the week and on Saturdays to can satiate that urge. But, we also make things at home. Even the art averse can write (and even illustrate) the story of their visit to the museum. Collage is an easy way to create a product that looks finished but requires almost no drawing ability.
In this case, Maya wanted to make her own Flora. I sketched a template, which Maya decorated. The project use basic items like glue, colored pencils, fabric, and straws.
Creating can help kids make sense of what they have seen. In this case, we talked about how Flora was different than the other women in the exhibition. Unlike the formal portraits, Flora was wearing light colors. Dutch women did not wear flamboyant hats as Flora does. Flora was not meant to be a portrait but instead a picture of a mythical being, a personification of nature.
After all that, I let Maya be free to design. Because, the goal isn’t that she experiences rather than reproduces Rembrandt.
While I wanted to ask Maya what she thought of the show, I had learned my lesson. The other day, though, she said, “Hey how is Rembrandt? I really like Flora.” I guess that Rembrandt guy isn’t a bore after all.