Perhaps my favorite moment in the Princeton University Art Museum unraveled in front of “The Death of Socrates,” a piece by Jacques-Louis David and his studio. A calling card of the European Art (17th-18th Centuries) gallery, the intentionally unfinished chef-d’œuvre, at least according to scholar Thomas Crow, served as a teaching tool.
In a precept for ART 100, we were crowded in front of the piece, wrestling with the implications of the peeled back layers of paint. We often picked up stragglers, thinking that our precept was in fact a tour. This particular day was no exception, and so a mother and her son stood behind us. The mother was attempting to cultivate appreciation for the art in her son, but at all of six-years-old, he remained rigid in his apathy. Finally, he turned to her and said this: “Mom, why did you take me to see a bunch of copies? This one isn’t even a good copy!” The mother laughed (and so did we), and then she revealed that each and every work was real. I have never seen an expression change so quickly! Immediately, he was overwhelmed by wonder. To be honest, I was too. How many people can say that they live a stone’s throw from Warhols, Davids, and the like? Not only that, but they are real!
All in all, the degree of accessibility that PUAM lends to its works of art never ceases to amaze me. It is one thing to look at a thumbnail of a Bierstadt in a textbook, but an entirely different thing to stand in front of it, in awe of its stupendous presence. In case you wondering, the Bierstadt that I have in mind is his 1875 “Mount Adams, Washington.”