“You see these little rolls of fat?” Jessica Ball ’09 points to the plump figures in an oil painting on the wall. “That’s Rubens!”
Ball is lecturing to a group of visitors to the Mead Art Museum. Her topic is Charity Enlightening the World, by 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is indeed known for showing the beauty of excess flesh (ask any of us who have ever been described as “Rubinesque”). The painting, Ball explains, was commissioned by Isabella, Archduchess of Brussels, in 1627; owned for a time by Rococo painter François Boucher; and finally purchased by the Mead in 1961. It depicts a personification of the idea of charity: a round, nurturing mother figure of “magnetic appeal,” with three well-fed babies clamoring for her attention. She holds high a lit torch, shedding light on a globe. (Terras irradient, Charity!)
Ball is one of the student docents at the Mead—each of whom, during lunch hours throughout spring semester, delivered a 10-minute gallery talk on a painting of his or her choice. Though an English major, Ball takes a lot of art classes, and Charity Enlightening the World caught her attention because of its diminutive size. “I actually found that this image was just as striking as the two huge paintings around it,” she says. Also intriguing was the fact that the painting was never meant to be displayed in a gallery—it was merely a preliminary sketch; the image was woven into part of a tapestry of numerous Christian virtues, and the tapestry hung in a convent in Madrid. Rough and unfinished, Charity gives insights into Rubens’ process that are not visible in a finalized work. Notice the lack of detail in the background, Ball says, and how the paint is so much thinner in the dark areas, almost revealing the wood underneath.
After Ball’s talk, I speak with Lizzie Barker, who’s in her first year as director of the Mead. The “Ten Minutes with a Masterpiece” lecture series is just one of several new projects she’s instituted with the docents this year. She wanted them to have as much experience as possible “doing their own thinking about original works of art.” Other initiatives have included a collaboration with The Amherst Student, in which the newspaper featured an article about a different Mead artwork every week, and a “Spring Into Art” party to celebrate the launch of the museum’s new downloadable podcast audio and video tours. Barker is most excited, though, about plans to hire a full-time educator to work with docents and visitors.
The 10-minute docent talks will resume next year, should you wish to spend your lunch break being enlightened.