by Kate Lemery
Last week, the morning before my ten-year-old son was to host a hang-out at our house, he said, “Mom, can we take that art down?”
James was referring to a reproduction of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1890 painting, Pygmalion and Galatea. It depicts the moment from Ovid’s Metamorphoses when the goddess Venus takes pity on the artist Pygmalion, who’d fallen passionately in love with his own statue, and enables him to bring the statue to life. It’s a touching image of love—a kiss transforming cold white marble to the rosier tones of human flesh. Galatea’s skin as she awakens is so convincingly rendered that if you pricked it with a pin, she might bleed.
The poster hangs in our master bedroom, positioned so that when the door is open it can be viewed from the hallway. Even when I pass en route while performing dreary domestic duties—laundry-folding and vacuuming—my heart quickens to see it.
James was too embarrassed to explain just why he objected, but he didn’t have to. Galatea’s body—her nude buttocks and thighs, which when juxtaposed against the darker background of Pygmalion’s artist studio—glows as brightly as a jellyfish. He’d hate for his friends to glimpse such brazen nakedness and draw conclusions about our family.
I want to be sensitive to James’s feelings, so I said I’d think about it. We were in the midst of our frantic triage before school, so there was no time to say more. When he and his siblings left, I pondered why I loved this painting.
I realized that Gérôme’s vision of artist as creator of life represents my own awakening to art. I first saw this image while visiting New York. On a tenth-grade bus trip from Iowa, fellow chorus members and I spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the Picassos and Warhols wowed my friends, I was completely taken by Pygmalion and Galatea. I purchased a poster reproduction from the gift shop, tacking it above my bed immediately upon my return home. The beauty of this image and its romantic theme drew me in. But the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to learn everything about art.
From my hometown library, I lugged home armloads of art books too large for my backpack. I used babysitting money to purchase them, too. When heartbreak inevitably came—friends turned on me, boyfriends dumped me, or grades I felt I deserved didn’t come—art was my solace. I could count on these beautiful images, and on artists across the ages, who shared my feelings, to lift me from my pain. They were there anytime I cared to look.
The Gérôme poster traveled with me to college and to my first apartments in Washington, D.C., receiving a frame somewhere along the way. I earned a master’s degree in art history, and grew to love other artworks, too—Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII, Agnes Martin’s Leaf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull). But none could displace Pygmalion and Galatea.
When my oldest children were three- and one-year old, I resigned from a fifteen-year career at the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art to become a stay-at-home-mom. To mark the occasion, a colleague gave me Lives of the Great Artists by Charlie Ayres, a large red book with eye-popping imagery and kid-friendly bios of some of the most revered painters and sculptors in history.
Much has been written about the importance of teaching art to children. Exposure to it develops not only creativity, but empathy and knowledge of other cultures. Art presents the depths of emotions, teaches the universality of our experiences, and—as I well knew—can be a great escape in trying times. After resigning, I wasn’t clear how to fill my newly long days with my children, but because I want them to love art and books, I read to them, and often from Lives of the Great Artists.
As we snuggled under a blanket together, one-year-old Marc would tap his chubby fingers on Giotto and Titian’s colorful paintings. Three-year-old James stared in wonderment when I read that Leonardo da Vinci cut up dead people so he could paint them more accurately. He laughed to learn that Salvador Dali’s dinner guests drank soup out of shoes. Inevitably, we’d veer toward a discussion about art, and I’d share facts I’d picked up elsewhere about artists. At some point—perhaps, in part, because of my enthusiasm for reading this particular book—my boys frequently requested it. These moments together kindled their early interest in art.
Seven years have passed, and the pages of Lives of the Great Artists have become dog-eared and worn. But this book, along with many museum visits along the way, helped me introduce more sophisticated art-themed life lessons to my children:
That making and showing art is not only risky—for you make yourself vulnerable to others’ criticism—but that it is also an act of declaring your worth.
That we should ignore our critics. Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Amedeo Modigliani, among others, were mercilessly ridiculed when they first presented their art, and yet they believed enough in themselves to keep creating.
That we should be resilient, much like Artemisia Gentileschi, Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other women artists, who strove to forge a career in a male-dominated field.
That artists are brave, often taking considerable risks to create pieces that continue the discussion of uncomfortable topics, which can influence changes in society’s thinking.
The night after James suggested I take down Pygmalion and Galatea, I read the book again to my boys and their younger sister. As I read, I thought about our family’s recent visit to the National Gallery. Five-year-old Rebecca sketched in the galleries while the boys played a game about which artwork they’d pick for their own walls. Marc’s choice—John Singleton Copley’s painting, Watson and the Shark—sparked a discussion of race relations. James quoted a fact from Lives of the Great Artists, that Monet’s stepdaughter pushed his canvases around in a wheelbarrow, allowing him to alternate work on the multiple views of haystacks he pursued simultaneously, in his scientific desire to capture the light in color. “And now museums have those [paintings] to study,” James said.
My children are awakening to art, too. Pygmalion and Galatea reminds me that this awakening is important, however uncomfortable it may sometimes be.
I explained to James why I’ll leave the reproduction up—that it represents who I’ve become and ideals I want to uphold. But I’ll take care to close the door when my children’s friends are around. Because sometimes waking up takes just a little more time.
Kate Lemery has a master’s degree in art history and worked for the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution for fifteen years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Motherwell Magazine, Peacock Journal, and elsewhere. She is finishing her first novel.