Interview with National Gallery of Art’s Arthur Wheelock

/ Exhibitions - Interviews

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On Saturday, April 18 at 6PM, the Museum will host its annual Chenoweth Lecture, which features specialists in various fields to encourage international understanding about a certain topic. This year, the topic focuses on our new exhibition, Small Treasures, and we are excited to welcome Arthur Wheelock, Ph.D. as our speaker.

Dr. Wheelock is the Curator of Northern Baroque Painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and is a leading scholar on the work of Johannes Vermeer. The star of Small Treasures, Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, is part of the collection Dr. Wheelock oversees at the National Gallery, and he has also had experience with many other works in the exhibition.

We spoke with Dr. Wheelock to learn more about his expertise and what we will learn from him during his lecture, Personal Encounters with Small Treasures. The Chenoweth Lecture is free and open to the public; seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Birmingham Museum of Art: What do you find most interesting about the subject of Small Treasures? Why do these small-scale paintings matter?

Arthur Wheelock: There is a personal quality to these small paintings that gives them an immediacy to which we can all respond. You can easily imagine holding these paintings in your hand as though they were meant for you alone. The fact that they were painted over three hundred years ago really seems hard to believe.

BMA: As Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, you have a valuable perspective on the time period when these small treasures were made. What is important about the historical context of the pieces in the exhibition?

AW: The political and religious changes that were occurring in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century were quite profound, but I find it striking that artists mostly avoided those subjects and, instead, focused on depicting humanity in all of its varied aspects. It was important for these artists to capture a sense of life in their works, both through their brushwork and through the figures’ poses.

BMA: You’ve written extensively on Vermeer and Girl with the Red Hat, featured in the exhibition, is from your collection at the NGA. For those who are not familiar with Vermeer, can you briefly explain the significance of his body of work?

AW: Explaining Vermeer in a few words is not really possible. Let it suffice to say that his paintings are not only beautiful but also mysterious, even though most of his paintings depict scenes of daily life. In the lecture I will talk about the Girl with the Red Hat and discuss some of the fascinating characteristics of this small masterpiece.

BMA: Where did your interest in Northern Baroque painting originate? What made you pursue a career in the arts?

AW: I grew up in a household that valued art, particularly through my mother who was an amateur painter. I also painted and was drawn to Northern Baroque art because I was wanted to learn how these artists painted. I was particularly interested in Vermeer and the role of the camera obscura, and I wrote about that topic for my dissertation. Needless to say, I was also inspired to study this material because of the inspiration of some wonderful teachers in college and graduate school.

BMA: What can our visitors expect to learn during your talk at our annual Chenoweth Lecture?

AW: I have had the good fortune to have known many of the paintings in this exhibition for a number of years, and I would like to share some of those experiences in this talk. I hope that these stories will add a personal dimension to the works that will make them even more engaging than they already are.

The Chenoweth Lecture is the final after-hours event to visit Small Treasures before it leaves Birmingham! Enjoy the exhibition Small Treasures, visit our galleries, grab dinner in the café, sip cocktails in the garden, and more. Join our Facebook event and invite your friends!