How much more would you discover about a painting if you could spend time looking closely at it? The current public lecture series sponsored by the Yale University Art Gallery aims to provide attendees with the opportunity to closely examine and understand the ties between reality and depiction in 19th and 20th century landscapes by American painters whose works are in the YUAG’s collection.
Entitled “American Views, Viewpoints, and Manipulations,” the series is presented by Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and YUAG associate John Walsh ’61. The six-part lecture series began on Oct. 27 by examining the work of Thomas Cole and will run through Dec. 7 with a discussion on the works of Edward Hopper.
“John is a gifted lecturer and he has a passion that he communicates to the audience,” said Laurence Kanter, chief curator at the YUAG. “He takes his time with the works of art, so he invites his audiences into the works of art with him, and that’s a very rare gift, to be able to first to think of doing that, and second to do it successfully.”
Walsh has led other lectures with the YUAG: In early 2015, he examined the Golden Age of Dutch art through a six-part lecture series, with the collaboration of the van Otterloo family who loaned 30 Dutch and Flemish paintings to the gallery at that time. Earlier in fall 2013, he presented “Let This Be a Lesson: Heroes, Heroines, and Narrative in Paintings at Yale,” which examined 11 paintings and the illustrated moral issues.
The initial idea for a lecture series began in earnest with the expansion of the gallery in 2012, said Pamela Franks, senior deputy director of the YUAG. Walsh has served on the governing board of the YUAG for more than three decades and often teaches Gallery Guides, Wurtele Gallery Teachers and fellows, and the YUAG wanted to expand his passion and knowledge to a larger audience.
“The lecture series grew out of teaching with works in galleries, slowing down, looking closely and uncovering everything,” Franks said. “We wanted to make this teaching accessible to a growing audience as the gallery was growing, so we started thinking about [the lectures] leading up to the expansion of the YUAG.”
The lecture series serves to engage people with the artwork, explained Kanter. He added that the series are “the engine” that keeps the Gallery’s collection moving forward.
“John has been more instrumental in training future lovers of works of art than anyone else I’ve ever met,” Kanter added.
Walsh’s teaching is focused on a method of sustained close examination — at the beginning of each lecture, he presents the chosen work and then scrolls through details of the painting while staying silent and allowing the audience to visually absorb the work of art. After this exercise, Walsh describes the painting and contextualizes it both historically and within the larger body of work of each artist.
The lectures, which often fill up the 381-seat auditorium, are followed by a close examination session of about 15 attendees. Jennifer Raab, an art history professor, noted that Walsh’s powerful teaching method allows the audience to come together and ask questions.
“One of the most remarkable things about John’s lectures and his teaching is that they unfold as a gradual process of revelation,” Raab said. “Knowing that hundreds of people are focusing on the same thing, there’s something very powerful about asking us to do that collectively in an era where our attention is so fractured and so mediated by screens and reproductive technologies.”
Walsh’s current lectures examine the similarities and differences between illustration and reality in landscape paintings, and Walsh said he tried to replicate the vantage point of the chosen American artists. During the talk on Thomas Cole, Walsh said, he was so intrigued by the mountains the American Hudson River school painter portrayed in the background of his landscapes that he decided to travel through the Catskill Mountains in order to determine whether Cole had illustrated a real mountain or fabricated one.
This deep enjoyment and curiosity are even more apparent in the close-looking sessions. At the beginning of the most recent session, concerning the 1861 work “Twilight in the Catskills” by Sanford Gifford, Walsh told the participants, “Give yourself the chance to come close, I’d like to know what you see that you didn’t see before.”
“John’s masterful at asking questions and making observations that might appear simple but help to challenge your fundamental assumptions, and that’s the mark of a brilliant teacher,” Raab said. “You lean in, and he asks you to look more carefully so as to understand the depth of complexity that a single work of art can offer.”
To this end, the YUAG has endowed a John Walsh Lecture and Education Fund that will enable the gallery to host future public lectures. Franks said the success of Walsh’s talks demonstrates the public’s interest in close-looking, and that the fund will further this goal.
The next lecture in the “American Views, Viewpoints, and Manipulations” series will focus on Albert Bierstadt and take place at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the YUAG, which is located at 1111 Chapel St.
Chloé Glass | firstname.lastname@example.org