A Single Painting
10 January 2010
A week ago an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum ended. The exhibition consisted of a single painting, La Donna Velata by Raphael, known in English as The Woman with the Veil, thought to be a portrait of Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter and possibly the model for several works by Raphael.
The permanent home of La Donna Velata is the Pitti Palace in Florence, so I may have seen the painting when I visited the Pitti Palace in 1989 during my first trip to Italy. I don’t recall it. At the time I was more interested in seeing Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid and Titian’s portrait of Pietro Aretino. La Donna Velata is making a tour of the US, visiting three museums in Portland, Reno, and Milwaukee. If you missed her in Portland, she is now at the Nevada Museum of Art.
As a single-painting exhibition, La Donna Velata was displayed alone in her own smallish room, at the end of the gallery with medieval and early modern European painting. Visitors were limited to no more than twenty-five at a time. The room was somber, draped in a funereal black, which, by contrast with the radiance of the painting itself, provided a dramatic setting for the appreciation of this rare work.
I count this single-painting exhibition to be a salutary event, not only from the perspective of a rare work by an Italian master visiting less than a handful of second-tier US cities (the painting isn’t going to NYC or LA or Chicago), but also the fact of it being a single painting that is the focus of attention. One cannot, in viewing La Donna Velata, wander aimlessly around the gallery seeking distraction or whatever captures one’s individual taste. If one goes to see La Donna Velata, one looks at one, single painting and nothing else.
I have traveled in order to view individual works of art, and I have made it a point (at times, though not always) to focus on one particular work in a museum, spending a significant amount of time looking at a single painting or sculpture, attempting to come to grips with something on which the artist lavished many, many hours, and which is usually viewed in passing for but a few seconds.
Sometimes lingering in front of a particular work of art is the only way to cope with the vastness of some museums like the Prado, the Uffizi, the Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum. These collections, all of which I have visited, are so vast, so rich, so overwhelming that one experiences something like aesthetic vertigo if one attempts to take in the whole the collection at one go. When I was in Paris I bought a five day ticket to the Louvre and went every day for five days in a row. It wasn’t too much. In fact, I barely scraped the surface.
This sort of viewing, however, is so antithetical to our contemporary culture of speed and superficiality, of fakery and phoniness, that it is a salutary exercise to force us to slow down and look at a single painting, to really look, to pay attention, and, perhaps even, to transform ourselves (or, at least, a part of ourselves) by the experience of being in the presence of greatness. So if you have seen (or will see) La Donna Velata in her US tour, all alone in her somber chamber, appreciate not only this masterpiece, but also the opportunity to linger and to focus, not to pass from one thing to another, but to invest yourself in a single encounter.
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