The Catholic University of America

April 23, 2013

Students Study at National Gallery of Art

  9/11 service day

David Gariff poses with several of his CUA@NGA students before Sandro Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi.

This semester an art history course takes students off campus. Every Saturday afternoon for nearly three hours, their classroom is the National Gallery of Art (NGA).

CUA@NGA is taught by David Gariff, senior lecturer at the National Gallery. He meets his class of 10 students each week in the atrium of the East Building of the huge museum complex that is located on the National Mall along Constitution Avenue between Third and Ninth streets.

On a recent Saturday, class begins in the gallery’s private library, where Gariff returns graded papers. Then they are off to the underground concourse, which leads to the West Building. There, they will explore the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The first stop is Raphael’s Alba Madonna (c. 1510). It is “one of the most important works” in the museum’s permanent collections, says Gariff. The classic painting depicts Mary in humility seated on the ground with the Christ Child in her lap as he reaches to accept a thin cross from a young John the Baptist.

“The figures interlock beautifully in a low pyramid and dominate the tondo (a round painting),” says Gariff. He urges the students to consider the centrality and balance of the painting, to look at how the three figures’ gazes are fixed on the cross — a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice.

“Eventually you find the horizon,” says Gariff as he leads the students to the painting’s landscape behind the figures.

Not only the students, but many Saturday-afternoon museum goers are hanging onto his words. It happens every week. Some will follow the group for the whole class period and a few even return each week to tag along. Gariff doesn’t mind as long as the CUA students stay at the front of the group.

David Gariff tells his students that Raphael's Alba Madonna is one of the most important works in the NGA's permanent collections.  

“Raphael is channeling Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo,” he says. “While Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in secrecy, Bramante informed Pope Julius II about the young Raphael. The Pope found work for Raphael painting his private apartments,” explains Gariff.

“Raphael finally gets into the chapel and sees the ceiling when it is half finished and he is dumbfounded. It changes everything he does after that.”

Gariff gave up a tenured teaching position at the University of Wisconsin to come to the NGA nine years ago. “That’s not something you do lightly. But this was a dream job for an art historian. I still have those moments where I pinch myself.”

Since coming to Washington, he has taught as a lecturer on campus in CUA’s Department of Art. He and Nora Heimann, associate professor of art and chair of the department, came up with the idea of offering a class at the NGA.

“I had taught a summer course for CUA in Paris in which we held classes in the Louvre and other museums and churches. It is transformative for students to learn right in the front of the works of art,” says Heimann.

“In many of our art courses, we will go into D.C. and hold a class at a museum. But to offer an entire course at a museum is something I have always wanted to do and it is a special and rare opportunity for our students. The collection at the National Gallery is world class and David is an incredibly accomplished and prolific art history scholar.”

The course has attracted students from a variety of disciplines in addition to art history, including politics, nursing, and music. “We wanted to keep the class size small so that the students would gain a hands-on experience,” says Gariff.

In developing the course, he said the goal was to “offer an indepth and extended study of the gallery’s permanent collections. I want this to be their touchstone collection. No matter if they are art history or business majors, this is a bank of expertise they will always have.”

From the Alba Madonna, the class moves to Titian’s Doge Andrea Gritti (c. 1546 – 1548). Titian, says Gariff, is the fourth great painter of the Italian High Renaissance (in addition to Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo). As the students view the painting of the doge of Venice, Gariff talks about technique.

“Look at the buttons on his cape. That effect is called impasto. It is done by taking a loaded brush and pushing it onto the surface to create texture. It’s a more spontaneous technique — something we start to see with Venetian painters at this time.”

Later, he compares the work of the Italian painters to the work of the German, Netherlandish, and Flemish painters of the same time period. He takes the class to Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (c. 1460).

He calls the painting “hypnotic.” He says it shows the Flemish love of oil paint and detail. He points out the translucence of the veil covering the woman’s face and the transition of light on the veil.

“Most of the painting is dark, monochromatic. But the belt is red. Red is a hot color. It comes toward your eye. Rogier wants your eye to go to the belt because he wants you to notice the buckle. He wants you to see every detail of the gold filigree,” says Gariff. As the students lean in for a closer look, he adds, “That buckle cries out for close scrutiny.”

With the semester winding down, the students in CUA@NGA are preparing to fill Gariff’s shoes. For their final projects, each has chosen a work of art from the gallery’s permanent collection to study in detail. They will serve as art historian lecturers, giving a 20-minute comprehensive presentation on their chosen object.

Senior nursing student Ellen Kluck says one of the reasons she took the course was that the Saturday meeting time worked well with her demanding schedules of clinicals. The experience has exceeded her expectations. “Every student should take this course. The way we have learned to appreciate art, I will take this with me for life,” she says.



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