Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Compassion at the National Gallery

August 26, 2009 · 3 Comments

The National Gallery

The National Gallery

Laid out in an absolute beautiful mosaic, England’s National Gallery reminds its visitors in a striking fashion to show compassion to others. On the entrance landing (a spot over which all must pass and, therefore, hopefully see) the image of an angel bent down to aide a suffering woman seeks to spark in those that see it a desire or state of consciousness to remember others in need. With this image and reminder being placed before the artwork, the message of compassion is engrained in one’s mind before he or she even begins to look at the paintings he or she is there to see. How true does the message ring in us though?DSCF0271

Many of the paintings portray their subjects in states of need and, thus, excite a feeling of compassion for said subject in the viewer of the piece. One particular piece stood out to me. In the Degas room (room 46- the most impressive room in the gallery in my opinion), an unassuming painting of a woman hangs on the wall. The painting is relatively small and can be passed by without much notice. It displays a woman in a dull black dress facing away from the painter. She stands alone in the sparsely decorated, white room with just a table and chair (both entirely simple and plain themselves). The color of her skin is so light that she would almost blend in with the surrounding wall if it were not for her brown hair and dark dress. If you happen to see this painting in the mix of a beautiful collection of colorful Degas works, you cannot help but be transfixed by it (at least, that was the case for me). The woman appears so lonely- completely isolated in her unnoticed state. My reaction was a desire to reach out and just comfort the woman. Clearly, this cannot happen- she’s just in a painting, I realize. But the painting is a beautiful one that strikes in the viewer an overwhelming sense of compassion for the woman. Success on the National Gallery’s part? Maybe.

Maybe not though. When I was finished looking at the painting, I gathered up my things and proceeded to elbow my way through the crowd of people waiting for me to get out of their way so that they might also have a chance at viewing the painting or the one next to it. Crowds can bring out the worst in people though so let’s put that example of selfishness aside for now. Just outside of the gallery, a man stood with a sign asking us to “say no toracism”. Though he was talking with a man and thus clearly making some strides in his campaign, how many others had passed by without paying him any attention? Besides pausing to snap a photograph, I’m one of the guilty. But, sadly I would argue, I’m certainly in the majority here. Now I don’t know what the man was really hoping to get across. His sign was provocative but not informative. But if I really had learned my lesson to remember to be compassionate, to think of others, to want to help others, wouldn’t I have stopped to at least inquire what he was proposing to tackle such a feat as conquering racism? And yet I walked by. The gallery’s fault? Not at all. But I just hope that its reminder of compassion was more readily remembered by its other visitors than it was by me.


Categories: Audrey · Museums

3 responses so far ↓

  •   russella // Aug 26th 2009 at 12:20

    The picture was interior right? First time I looked over it I thought it said inferior, which i guess also works…

    I think you’re a bit too hard on yourself, the fact that you have even considered his message means that you were receptive to his attempts to get his point across.

  •   allisonmschell5 // Aug 26th 2009 at 18:03

    Out of all the themes the National Gallery could have chosen, I find that they picked “compassion” to be rather interesting. In my Museum Studies course this past semester, I was taught that many of these big museums like to highlight the triumphs of their “civilization”. Not to say that parts of the National Gallery display this underlying theme, but to highlight “compassion” is interesting to me. But because I went in a different entrance to the museum, I did not see the compassion mosaic and thus my experience and how I viewed paintings was much different from yours.

  •   kimberlyspackman // Aug 26th 2009 at 20:02

    I have to say that you picked up on this more readily than I did originally. After reading your post and looking back on the time I spent in the National Gallery, I can see this message of “compassion” in the paintings and design. Now that I realize this, I feel guilty not even picking up on it immediately and being able to relate it to the city outside of the National Gallery. Think of it this way, at least by noticing the theme and discussing it here you’ve helped those of us better understand the National Gallery and how its theme of “compassion” can relate to the rest of London.

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