Wisdom from Art

Taken From “Art As Therapy” at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Windmill” by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

For the next few weeks I’m going to take you on a virtual museum tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where Paul and I spent our last day before returning home. It’s not going to be the usual kind of tour, with lots of images and analysis. I’ll focus on only one painting per post, and the analysis will come from the museum’s show called “Art as Therapy,” written by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton.  (Finally, a museum talks my language!) I have also decided to do two posts a week for the duration of the series. They will be on Tuesday and Thursday. I am excited to share what I learned with you.

My favorite periods of art are 19th Century Impressionism, the Dutch Masters, and early American art, but I usually can’t tell you any more than ‘I like that one!’ This might seem odd, as I grew up with museum art at home. Many sophisticated art curators, museum directors and collectors came through my parents’ home, but rather than learn from them, I felt ashamed of my ignorance and tuned out their conversations (along with what felt like their need for approval from my parents.)

This show highlights many well known paintings, and some lesser known. Each one dispels a myth about art and life, creating a bridge between art and self-exploration. After all, isn’t art a form of self-exploration? I will share ones that correlate with  subjects that most spoke to me. The writing in italics is a direct quote from the show.


Myth #1:
“Only idiots like pretty, sweet things.”    

       “Le Jardin” by Jacobus Van Looy

“Educated people today quite often feel a bit queasy at the idea that art can be sweet and lovely. [They might argue], isn’t this a denial of all that is wrong with the world? Shouldn’t art be about more weighty and worthy matters?”

Van Looy knew a lot about human suffering – he lost both parents when he was five.

“Once we have known suffering, beauty is a consolation. We need beauty around us to keep up our spirits and to refresh our appetite for life. Cheerfulness – the mood that beauty naturally encourages – is a good state of mind to be able to access, given the number of practical problems we have to face. A taste for pretty art isn’t a denial of the troubles of the world; it shows a wise awareness of the extent of suffering and a concern for bolstering oneself against despair.”

This message validates my own belief in the importance of beauty. Beauty helps us to access love, spirit and joy. Imagine a beautiful young woman, a prayer of gratitude, a tree bathed in ocher light, or the perfect little toes on a newborn infant.  Yet for everything there is an opposite.

Beauty is often used in advertising, to seduce us into thinking we need to buy a new skin product to make us look young again, or a new car, TV, or kitchen gadget to help us keep up with our neighbors.

I think you know by now, if you’ve been reading my blogs, that this kind of beauty is not what I aspire to, but I both want and need my version of beauty as an essential ingredient in my life. Examples are the peonies around my circle drive, the teal color of the walls in my living room, or the floral print on my scarf.  Whatever you or I have suffered from, beauty, like a warm hand on a cold day, is a panacea.

What role does beauty play in your life?
What kind of art speaks to you most?


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9 Responses to Wisdom from Art

  1. Katherine Jay-Carroll says:

    Eileen, what a great idea to share this trip with all of us and bring more beauty and interest to each of us. This is a lovely thing and most appreciated by Katherine and Roger

  2. Tonja Ali says:

    Eileen, Thank you for reminding us to consider or re-consider what is beauty in a world where we are constantly bombarded with impressions of “prescribed” notions of beauty. Recently, I’ve taken to a nature trail less than 200 feet from my home. Every morning I embark upon a journey through this trail for about 30 minutes. It’s immaculate. It’s mystical and magical. I feel very safe and grounded here. I call it my very own enchanted forest! Each day it has another lesson to teach me; lessons about stillness, submission, divine order, non judgment, detachment, love, and BEAUTY. I take my Samsung Note 3 along to capture the most amazing photos of snails, leaves with droplets of water, the creek, and the sun breaking through these enormous trees. Each time I do this I’m looking at an aspect of beauty within myself and I’m very grateful for that self-acknowledgement – that I too am a part of this beauty – JUST THE WAY I AM. Mary Cassatt is one of my favorite artists – because she exemplified this notion that there is so much beauty in everyday activities – like a mother bathing or feeding her child. I think IF we look for beauty everywhere in our everyday lives we will never ever be disappointed!
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Elaine Naddaff says:

    Hi Eileen, YES, you should share your observations on art from a great museum with all of us,
    regardless of our financial circumstances and comparison with your Rockefeller roots!
    Right on/write on… I took four semesters of art history courses at Wheaton College which included
    19th c Impressionism and 17th c Dutch and Flemish Art. Maybe, you and I should trade places-wow, that would be, imaginable, with a blink of the eye… My good friend and “ex” grew up, much like you with museum art in his parents apartment. I remember most of the paintings!!!! The junctures that American art and European art connect on are fascinating from a historical viewpoint.
    I will, always, remember my art professor noting the deep and endless horizons and skies that
    typified many 17th c Dutch and Flemish landscapes. I, too, love art and am so uplifted by the colors, imagination and all that is expressed. Please do not leave one detail of your art walk, uncovered, as “we” sit with our computer screens joining you. Cheers !

  4. Hi Eileen, This is lovely, as beauty is.

    I also seek the original in art, the surprising advance of ideas and expressions which expand our definition of beauty. Contemporary art is the realm where this is mostly found, messy as it is..

    Best regards to you and Paul, Joe

    • Hi Joe, so nice to hear from you! We’ve been thinking about you as we thought we saw one of your head sculptures through the window of the house that Paul’s grandparents lived in in Amsterdam before they emigrated to the U.S.!

  5. Louise Gilbert says:

    Eileen, what a lovely idea to share this most important and, for me, uplifting subject of Art and Beauty. Beauty is a central component of my life. In my home are my favorite photographs of Navajo women, men, and children by Laura Gilpin, who photographed these beautiful people from the 1930s on; an original etching by my favorite Marc Chagall called “The Groaning Table;” and an original lithograph by Graciella Rodo Boulanger of two children on the back of an orange cow!! I often have three sunflowers smiling to me in a vase. I love the Impressionists and I also love the work of Georgia O’Keefe, who takes us deeply into each flower she paints. But it is often being in Nature itself, either hiking with friends or birding that truly makes my heart sing! I become excited like a puppy looking closely, for example, at an emerging Trillium on the trail in Spring! Friends laugh at me because I scream for joy!

  6. Phyll says:

    A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness.

    – John Keats, Endymion

    Beauty is the soul’s elixir. Flowers, fauna, animals, art, Nature and natural landscapes fill my heart with beauty which I, in turn, share with others through my photo note cards and framed prints. Life is inherently richer and more satisfying when we feast our eyes on beauty in any form. Although I have many favorite artists, writers, painters and poets, natural landscapes and furry friends, both pets and wild critters, are the most beautiful subjects in my eyes. Why? Because they have an inherent honesty and innocence, qualities that are beautiful in and of themselves. Affection, love and tenderness follow. Beauty = health, happiness and well-being.

  7. Stephanie Koenig says:

    There is a thirst for beauty that all people experience, even if they don’t call it that, or even register it consciously. For many years, my office was located on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC in a busy part of town. There was a small patch of earth in the sidewalk out front, surrounding an oak tree, and every spring, I took some time to plant flowers there. It was always so remarkable how many people stopped to talk to me, to say how they appreciated the flowers, to talk about what they liked to plant. There I was, in my grungy work clothes and gardening gloves, on my haunches, working on a little patch of dirt on busy Connecticut Avenue — I assumed I way almost invisible to the busy passers-by. But year after year, I found that people stopped to talk, stopped to say how pretty the flowers were, to thank me, and to just chat a bit. I never had so many lovely conversations with total strangers as when I was planting flowers on a little patch of earth on Connecticut Avenue.

  8. Cynthia MacKay says:

    A flowery band to bind us to the earth. ..some shape of beauty lifts away the pall from our dark spirits..an endless fountain of immortal drink, poured unto us from the heavens brink.
    Needed now more than ever to support the spirits of my darling Warren, in the fight of his life against cancer.
    Thank you Eileen.

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