OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO: Works of art that punctuate our travels

  • Opinion   Thu, Jun 9th, 2022   Paul Knowles
The National Gallery in Ottawa.

The National Gallery in Ottawa.

I have seen the Mona Lisa. By this, to be clear, I mean I have seen a smallish painting, behind protective glass, fenced off from any possible incursion by insensitive art lovers, and surrounded by about 1,000 tourists, all of whom have rushed blindly past the innumerable treasures of the Louvre to be able to say what I said at the outset: “I have seen the Mona Lisa.”
So my suggestion to you is, don’t bother. Not when there are thousands of other astonishing works of art available to the informed traveller, all around the world. Works of art that you can approach, savour, enjoy at your leisure without worrying about catching an elbow from an over-eager Mona-and-me selfie-taker.
Europe abounds in opportunities. I wrote, almost a year ago, about the galleries of Amsterdam with their astonishing collections, so let’s move a few kilometres down the coast, to The Hague, home of the terrific Mauritshuis. This reborn gallery has a superb collection of important work, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, and many more. I love the work of Rembrandt, but here, the painting that stopped me in my tracks was Vermeer’s “Girl with a pearl earring,” painted around 1665. The painting is beautiful, of course, but what made the moment even more special was that I could get as close (no touching!) to the painting as I wanted, and could also step back for a leisurely, unencumbered view of Vermeer’s work. I highly recommend Mauritshuis, and in fact, The Hague in general.
Let’s return to Paris for a moment, and head back into the Louvre. We’ll agree to skip the crowd scene at the Mona Lisa, and explore other parts of this gigantic gallery. I have always been astonished at the contrast between the crowds in that one area, and all the empty space there is for viewing towering Greek and Roman sculptures, and for displays of paintings by giants including Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio and,
of course, iconic sculptures like the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory – almost all ignored by the folks streaming like lemmings to see Mona.
The National Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, also houses works by all the traditional greats, but adds an Irish twist, with important works by Irish painters like Jack B Yeats. There are two wonderful things about this gallery, set in the capital of one of my favourite countries in the world – the Irish National Gallery houses one of the greatest collections of paintings anywhere in the world… and it’s free. Just come on down, and steep yourself in creativity.
If you are a traveller anything like me, you enjoy the occasional visit to a “Stately Home” – the kind of over-the-top ancient pile that especially abounds in England, but can be found almost anywhere in Europe. One of the best is Blenheim Palace; it’s replete with fine art, much of it surprisingly modern. For the history buff, this is heritage heaven, a 300-year-old palace that also happens to be the birthplace of Winston Churchill – a connection well commemorated at Blenheim.
But with Winston, there is certainly an artistic connection; you’ll enjoy a stop at his own country home, Chartwell, south of London, where your time will include your of Churchill’s own art studio, a cozy separate building on the Kent property. Churchill was quite a fine painter in his own right, and his work can be found around the world (including hanging in the exotic Chesterfield Hotel in Palm Beach). But nowhere will you experience the famous leader’s artistic spirit as strongly as in his own studio.
Closer to home, there is the treasure trove called the National Gallery, in Ottawa. The National Gallery houses works by all the European masters, of course, and a visitor has to take time with this amazing art, but what I love about our national gallery is that it is “ours” – Canadian, home to terrific work by Canadian painters, from Tom Thomson and his friends who formed the Group of Seven after his death, to the astonishing Indigenous painter, Norval Morrisseau, to the eccentric west coast genius, Emily Carr.
On a recent visit to The National Gallery, we stood, drinking in the wall of Thomson sketches, each as intriguing as the last, marveling in this talented life cut short so mysteriously.
If you want to know Canada just a little bit better, spend an afternoon at the National Gallery. Or, even more reachable, at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg or the Ontario Art Gallery, also repositories of a lot of artistic greatness. At the AGO, I had another art-based, gob-smacking
moment when I first came face to face with the large painting “Liberation” by Frederick Varley. It’s an image that has remained in my brain ever since!
In fact, some of the most striking images that linger from my travels arise from encounters with works of art – Van Gogh’s painting of his caregiver, Monet’s gardens, Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” Vermeer’s “Girl,” MacDonald’s “The Tangled Garden,” and so many more.
Today’s lesson: never walk past the open door of an art gallery. Especially if it’s free.
Paul Knowles is an author and travel writer. To contact Paul about travel, his books, or speaking engagements, email pknowles@golden.net.