THATMuse

If there’s one thing we should be grateful for in these dark times, it’s that this isn’t happening in a time when we only had three TV channels (or worse, no TV at all). If you’re anything like us, you’ve been spending the last few weeks getting even better acquainted with your Netflix account. And with almost anything you can think of available for you to watch with just a few clicks, it is, all in all, a pretty good time to be stuck at home.

But, if you are like us, you’ll also be missing going to museums and seeing art. THATMuse is here for you in this strange time, to bring you our list of the best shows about art, art documentaries, and art movies on Netflix, so you can get your art fix at home. It may not be quite enough to get us through until the end of all this – but it should last you a few days.

1)     The First Line

If you’ve been on one of our treasure hunts at the British Museum, you will have learned about the complicated history of the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures from the Parthenon, and are in the British Museum under somewhat dubious circumstances. They were sold to the museum by Lord Elgin, a Scottish nobleman, diplomat, soldier and politician who many claim didn’t have the right to them in the first place. This movie tells the story of two Athenian lawyers who – understandably – would quite like the marbles back.  

2)     Bob Ross: Beauty is Everywhere

While not an art movie per se, be honest: has there ever been a time when we were more in need of Bob Ross’s soothing tones, pretty paintings, and – frankly – iconic hairstyle? I’ll answer for you: no. Bob Ross: Beauty is Everywhere is a limited series from 1991, and is available on Netflix in 14 countries, including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. So grab a blanket, turn on the TV – and if you want a take a little nap, we won’t tell.

3)     At Eternity’s Gate

With an 80% score on Rotten Tomatoes and starring Willem Dafoe, the 2018 drama about the final years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life is without a doubt one of the most popular art movies on Netflix. The movie is perhaps not strictly biographical, but it is full of landscapes which will be familiar to fans of Van Gogh’s paintings, and Dafoe is – as always – mesmerising. So settle in, soak it up – and perhaps when all this is over and you can plan that Musée d’Orsay treasure hunt, you’ll know what you’re looking for!

4)     Abstract: The Art of Design

Netflix’s 2019 documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design shows off the life and work of eight designers, including an architect, a stage designer and even the designer of several iconic Nike shoes. While it’s interesting to learn about the lives and thought processes of various artists, the biggest draw is aesthetic. Unsurprisingly for a show about artists, it’s visually stunning.

5)     Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

Produced by, bizarrely, Leonardo DiCaprio and his father, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski is a documentary about the life of little-known Polish-American artist Stanislav Szukalski. Based largely on a series of interviews conducted in the 1980s, the documentary paints a fascinating picture of an artist who made up his own language, taught himself sculpture, and once had most of his art destroyed in a Nazi raid.

6)     Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Secret of the Tomb is the third installment in the Night at the Museum Trilogy. Set in (a fictionalised version of) the British Museum, like the first two movies it stars Ben Stiller as a museum security guard, Larry. It also features an impressive ensemble cast, including Robin Williams, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan. It’s a great one to watch with kids while the museums are closed (but we won’t judge you if you watch it on your own).

7)     Mrs Lowry and Son

Set in the Lancashire town of Pendlebury in the 1930s, the 2019 drama Mrs Lowry and Son tells the story of renowned artist L.S. Lowry, and his cantankerous mother, Elizabeth, who remarks that she “hasn’t been cheerful since 1898”. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the bleaker art movies on Netflix – but there are some funny moments, and both Timothy Spall as L.S. Lowry and Vanessa Redgrave as the bedridden and grumpy Mrs Lowry, are excellent.

8)     Blown Away

Blown Away is the Canadian glassblowing reality TV show we didn’t know we needed. No, you haven’t succumbed to hallucinations after not leaving the house for so long – it’s a real thing. Think The Great British Bake Off for glassblowers: it’s charming, informative, and surprisingly dramatic.

9)     Velvet Buzzsaw

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this satirical horror movie set in the pretentious world of the Los Angeles art scene. The plot involves a collection of paintings found in a dead man’s apartment, and the events that follow are dark, supernatural, and at times gory – so stay away if you’re squeamish. Critics have generally found the movie to be a bit silly, but enjoyable if you’re into that kind of thing.

What have you been watching?

Let us know your suggestions in the comments! Want more content to help you stay sane while you’re stuck at home? Sign up to updates from our blog!

Avviso veloce: alcune delle informazioni in grassetto potrebbero essere risposte a domande bonus nella tua caccia Divertimento e Giochi, la cui Prima Verisione in Italiano, sarà Venerdì 3 Aprile alle 17.30.  

Da sculture e vasi, ad affreschi e templi, la mitologia popola quasi l’intera produzione artistica greca. Il Partenone, uno dei più famosi complessi architettonici di tutti i tempi, rappresenta un lampante esempio di come i Greci si lasciassero ispirare dai propri racconti mitologici per dare un senso al mondo che li circondava. 

Questo magnifico tempio fu costruito alla fine delle Guerre Persiane, quando, alla metà del V secolo AC, Atene e il suo leader, Pericle, desideravano mostrare al mondo di essere una popolazione forte ed eroica. La città era stata distrutta diverse volte nei decenni precedenti e il Partenone e i suoi rilievi potevano di certo essere un simbolo della sua rinascita. Per servire gli obiettivi nazionalistici di Pericle, i Greci posizionarono il tempio in cima all’Acropoli di modo che fosse chiaramente visibile. Il Tempio celebrava Atena, Dea della Saggezza e della Guerra, e protettrice della città, che, in effetti, è la protagonista delle sue decorazioni architettoniche. I Greci, però, dopo la loro grandiosa vittoria sui Persiani, volevano ringraziare tutti gli abitanti del Monte Olimpo per il loro supporto durante le Guerre, e non soltanto Atena. Non dovrebbe dunque sorprenderci se Dei e Dee occupano i frontoni (i grandi triangoli sostenuti dalle colonne ad entrambi i lati corti del tempio): il Frontone Ovest raccontava della sfida mitologica tra Atena e Poseidone (il Dio del mare), in lite per chi di loro potesse governare sull’Attica, e della vittoria della Dea; il Frontone Est, invece, mostrava il racconto della nascita di Atena al cospetto di altre divintà riunite per assistere all’evento. 

La mitologia, però, poteva servire un compito ancora più intelligente e sofisticato: racconti di combattimenti tra bestie incivili ed uomini coraggiosi, potevano facilmente essere connessi ai recenti eventi storici: le Guerre tra i barbari Persiani e gli eroici Ateniesi. Chi ha studiato i Greci sa che consideravano il centauro (una creatura per metà uomo e per metà cavallo, solitamente ubriaca e molto rumorosa!) la personificazione dell’ ‘inciviltà’ per eccellenza. E così… I migliori scultori Greci utilizzarono le metope (spazi rettangolari sotto i frontoni) per rappresentare il combattimento mitologico tra i Lapiti (una tribù leggendaria della Tessalonia) e i Centauri, che fecero irruzione al Matrimonio del re dei Lapiti per rubarne le donne. Il racconto serviva l’obiettivo ideologico del tempio perfettamente: i centauri rappresentavano metaforicamente i Persiani e le loro cattive maniere, mentre i Lapiti, che alla fine vincono la battaglia, richiamavano al coraggio dei civilizzati Ateniesi. 

Non possiamo che affermare che i Greci erano veri maestri delle arti! Non solo erano abili scultori e architetti ma, come nel caso del Partenone, le loro scelte iconografiche spesso seguivano dei sofisticati piani ideologici. Se hai voglia di leggere di uno dei più famosi artisti greci di tutti i tempi, Policleto, clicca qui! Non possiamo sapere se i Greci riusciranno mai a riportare a casa il loro amato tempio, ma per adesso noi continuiamo a godercelo al British Museum. Vuoi sapere di come i famosi ‘Marmi di Elgin’ furono portati nella capitale inglese? Dai un’occhiata qui! Il Partenone è, ovviamente, un meraviglioso tesoro della nostra Caccia a tema Divertimento e Giochi! Per qualche altro posts (e risposte a domande bonus) su altri tesori della Caccia Divertimento e Giochi, leggi qui qui! Vuoi saperne di più della Grecia antica? Dai un’occhiata al nostro post sul cosa un vaso Greco può dirci del Simposio!

The Louvre courtyard and pyramid illuminated at night
Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle.

This is either the last or the penultimate post in the Louvre Photo Series. It’s been a pleasure to ponder what images to use for the imminent THATLou website. 

As I touched on in the last post, photographic tastes which I’d long ago forgotten awoke, such as automatically turning to black and white, steering clear of portraiture (unless people are tiny, indecipherable specs in the distance, I’m not really interested in them), looking at shadows, architecture and reflexions, and above all — what the Louvre provides in spades – is a love of geometric shapes. Don’t really have much more to say than that.

In fact a complaint I’ve had from many regarding this blog is that the posts are just too long. When I’m writing about content, which is the majority of this blog it’s true that they are a bit wordy. But were anyone who took art history seriously to read this (apart from my mother) they’d say that this blog is too superficial (she saves my feelings by not saying anything). So since you can’t please everyone, I’m just going to do a photo-dump today, and leave you with some images which may or may not appear on this imminent website that Jenny Beaumont’s doing a phenomenal (and immense) job on.

I. M. Pei's Glass Pyramid au louvre in Napoleon Courtyard

You can see more images of the Louvre here.

Terracotta bust of Sir Hans Sloane, Founder of the British Museum
Hans Sloane

Dubbed the first national public museum in the world, the British Museum didn’t start off as a grand, Greek-style building full of Egyptian mummies, Roman statues and Aztec turquoise. The museum has changed quite a bit in its almost 300-year history, but began with the donation of Hans Sloane (above), a high-society Irish physician – who also invented hot chocolate. What claims to fame!

Upon his death in 1753, Sloane bequeathed his collection of fantastic antiquities, books, and natural specimens to the nation. King George II and Parliament wanted Sloane’s collection to be seen by the people, not sit in a basement somewhere collecting dust. So later that year, Parliament passed the The British Museum Act, which formally established the British Museum at Montagu House – which stood on the spot of the current British Museum. To add some variety to Sloane’s science-heavy collection, Parliament included the Cottonian Library and Harleian manuscripts in the new museum for a taste of literature and art.  

FUN FACT: The board of trustees almost bought a place called Buckingham House, which some of you might know better as its current incarnation – Buckingham Palace.

As the collection grew, so did the museum. In the 1880s, the natural history collection had grown enough to become a museum in its own right. The collection moved to a building in South Kensington, in what we know now as the Natural History Museum.   

FUN FACT: Entry to the Natural History Museum is free. It has a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons too, including a famous 26-meter-long diplodocus. Check it out – and when you’re done, maybe go on a THATMuse treasure hunt at the V&A next door!

One of the most prominent additions to the British Museum was the introduction of the Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon, brought to the museum in 1812 by Lord Elgin. In 1931 funds were given by the controversial Sir Joseph Duveen to construct a new gallery for the Elgin Marbles. However, WWII got in the way and the gallery wasn’t opened until 1962. It was American architect, John Russell Pope, who designed the new gallery that you can now see today. Pope also designed the National Gallery in DC!

On the note of design, Robert Smirke is the man responsible for most of the recognizable parts of the British Museum you see today. The Quadrangle, the main section of the British Museum, was completed in 1852. You can still see it in the basic structure of the museum today, with wings in the north, south, east, and west. The first room to be competed was the Kings Library, finished in 1827. The library was one of main reasons the new building was built in the first place. King George the IV donated books belonging to his father, King George III, and the British Museum just didn’t have room for all of them! You can still see the restored Kings Library, though it is now called “The Enlightenment Room.”  

FUN FACT: The original design for the British Museum included dorms for museum staff, as the museum workers lived on site– which was common practice in those days!

Panorama of the British Museum Great court, staircases and central reading room, shadowed by norman foster's famous glass ceiling
Great Court in the British Museum

While the majority of the current British Museum was designed by Robert Smirke, one of the British Museum’s most distinctive features, the central court and dramatic glass ceiling (above), was designed by Norman Foster’s company (who also designed the famous Millenium – AKA “Wobbly” – Bridge!) The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. The Great Court was a massive undertaking and was completed in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. This beautiful and impressive space greets visitors as they first enter the museum – and what a vast number of visitors that is! For the past eight years, the British Museum has remained the U. K’s no.1 visitor attraction. Last year over 6.6 million people visited the British Museum to see the amazing history that it contains.

President Obama presents the 2009 National Humanities Medal to Philippe De Montebello in Washington
President Obama presents the 2009 National Humanities Medal to Philippe De Montebello in Washington, taken from daylife.com

I haven’t been very good on the blog front in the past few weeks, struggling to keep up on all my fronts. So as I task myself with returning to some semblance of regular posting I have a bit of distance.  What is it I’d like to get out of blogging here? Overall this blog has addressed either specific works of art at the Louvre (which may just help THATLou participants in their bonus questions) or has reviewed wonderfully memorable treasure hunts and the fun that the hunters have brought to the game. This is the core of the blog which I shall certainly continue, but I’d like to keep an overall dialogue alive, too, where we touch on museums on the whole and the art world at large and perhaps touch on one or two museum personalities here and there. So to start with an overview, what’s better than museum stats lists – the biggest, the oldest, the most popular?

The Art Newspaper is a marvelous source for the general public interested in Art. It’s a monthly published by the Italian publishing house Umberto Allemandi and is about the art world (you’d never guess it from the name, eh?). Though it’s catered principally to art professionals, it’s not a dry trade magazine.  I find it accessible and enjoyable to the layman (me) within the art world, however I also trust it as a source, because it has my old crush, Philippe de Montebello’s stamp of approval.

black and white photo of Philippe de Montebello in 1978 in front of the Met
Philippe de Montebello in 1978, photo by Paul Hosefros published in the NY Times on 9 Jan 2008

The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY was the first museum president I ever formed an opinion of (that baritone voice, that fine accent, ah, what starry-eyed teen wouldn’t swoon? – ok, ok, I was a dork. But I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, I had to have some sort of entertainment). After 31 years at the Met de Montebello resigned in 2008 (here’s an adieu from Michael Kimmelman in the NY Times, with the excellent title “The Legacy of a Pragmatic Custodian of Human Civilisation“) to go down a few blocks to NYU and create a course which he described as “the history of collecting, connoisseur-ship and evolution of museums including the central issue of how the museum’s mission can be defined in today’s world”. Oh what I wouldn’t give to take that course, and at my old alma mater no less – but babies and jobs and 6000 miles keep me from it heart-breakingly.

In any case, with regard to The Art Newspaper de Montebello said it “stresses accuracy embracing an editorial policy that consistently reveals a high degree of seriousness and sense of responsibility.” (13 April 2006 issue of The Art Newspaper).  Its subjects range from art market discussions to art book reviews and Op-Eds, from curator interviews and features to new wing openings, down to conservation techniques and new discoveries. One list it produces, which all general newspapers like the BBC pick up each year, is the most visited stats.

This week I shall post the top fifteen museum attendance list from The Art Newspaper with an aim to use it as a loose TOC, to touch on those most popular museums, and perhaps cover links between them.

And, yes, I couldn’t help but put the photo of yet another crush at the top of the page – how great is that, a photo of Obama with de Montebello?

Sir Hans Sloane

bust of hans sloane british museum founder

This lovely gentleman right here is Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection is the basis of the British Museum. A physician and collector, Sloane amassed a huge array of scientific and historic artifacts — an impressive 71,000 books, manuscripts, natural specimens and “things relating to the customs of ancient times” which became the foundation of the museum.  Sloane started off his collecting spree by gathering natural specimens, many of which he got on an adventure in 1687 to Jamaica. During his time there, he amassed over 800 plants and other live specimens. He didn’t stop there though– Sloane became a collector of collections! He purchased collections by people such as William Charlton and James Petiver. Once word got around that Sloane enjoyed collecting these specimens and objects, you can bet that every birthday and Christmas he was gifted with more pieces to add to his collection.

Though the British Museum is known today primarily for its antiquities, it wasn’t until 1772 when Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases was bought by the museum that they began to accrue much of the classical antiquities collections. Now, the British Museum holds over 8 million objects – which all started from Sir Hans Sloane’s generous donation.

Having covered the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, we’re now turning our attention to the New Kingdom, Egypt’s most prosperous and powerful period. The New Kingdom, from 16th century BC to 11th century BC, covered the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties. The latter part is referred to as the Ramesside Period, due to eleven pharaohs named Ramesses.

Granite statue of pharaoh Ramesses II in British Museum, From Egypt around 1300 BC
Ramesses II from the British Museum Collection

The Napoleon of Egypt, Thutmose III, consolidated and expanded the Egyptian empire to great success, leaving a surplus of power and wealth to his successors. Interestingly, his Co-Regent was Hatshepsut (left), the second female pharaoh of Egypt. Although they were technically co-regents, Thutmose was only 2 years old when the pair ascended to the throne, leaving virtually all of the power in Hatshepsut’s hand for 22 years, during which she enjoyed a highly successful rule, establishing trade routes and overseeing major building projects.

The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV followed this period. He changed his name to Akhenaten in order to honor the god Aten, in what could be interpreted as the first instance of monotheism in history. This change wasn’t very well received, and he was subsequently written out of Egyptian history! That said, although art flourished to an unprecedented level during his reign.  

The 19th Dynasty is more famous for its great military than anything. Ramesses II, called the Great, was caught in the first ever recorded military ambush. He remained unfazed and won the battle! Thus his moniker, Ramesses the Great. He fathered a TON of kids, which is why his sons’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings is the largest funerary complex in Egypt. His statue (above) is one of many that you can see in the British Museum.

Bust of Hapshepsut from the Met In New York
Hatshepsut at the Met in New York City

The 20th Dynasty would see the last ‘great’ pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ramesses III. He defeated the Sea Peoples in two great land and sea battles, and settled them in Southern Canaan as his subjects. He also had to fight invaders from Libya, and these wars drained Egypt’s treasury and led to a decline in the empire. The first known labor strike in history occurred during his reign, when tomb-builders and artisans did not receive their rations. After his death, the pharaoh’s power continued to decline, hurried on by droughts, famine, and corruption throughout the land. The last of the Kingdoms was coming to its end, and so are our Ancient Egypt posts, sadly.

Ramsesses II in the British Museum The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV followed this period. He changed his name to Akhenaten in order to honor the god Aten, in what could be interpreted as the first instance of monotheism in history. This change wasn’t very well received, and he was subsequently written out of Egyptian history! That said, art flourished to an unprecedented level during his reign.   The 19th Dynasty is more famous for its great military than anything. Ramesses II, called the Great, was caught in the first ever recorded military ambush. He remained unfazed and won the battle! Thus his moniker, Ramesses the Great. He fathered a ton of kids, which is why his sons’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings is the largest funerary complex in Egypt.

Image result for valley of the kings
The Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt

A Brief Look at the Egyptian Middle Kingdom

Following our post on the Old Kingdom, we’re now turning our attention to the Middle Kingdom (and yes, you guessed it, the next will be about the New Kingdom). 

Lintel of Amenemhat, 20th Century BC, Met Museum. Hieroglyphs and heads of the King, Anubis, Horus and attendants
Lintel of Amenemhat, 20th Century BC, Met Museum

The beginning of the Middle Kingdom (after a hiatus of turmoil and strife over a succession struggle) was messy and did not immediately follow the Old Kingdom. There were two factions vying to control all of Egypt with the 11th Dynasty of Thebes controlling the Southern part and the 10th Dynasty from Herakleopolis ruling the north. Eventually the Middle Kingdom started when Mentuhotep II, of the northern Thebes, won control & consolidated power.

The kings of the Middle Kingdom never reached the absolute power that the kings of the Old Kingdom did. That said, one of the most important traditions of Ancient Egypt was established during this time, that of appointing the king’s son as Co-Regent, a tradition that would continue into the New Kingdom.      

During the Middle Kingdom, the ‘block’ statue would become popular and remain so for almost 2,000 years. These statues consist of a man squatting with his knees drawn to his chest, and his arms folded on his knees. The one on the right is located in the British Museum. 

Red sandstone torso of Queen Sobekneferu from the Louvre museum. 18th Century BC.
Headless bust of Sobekneferu,

One of the most interesting facts about the Middle Kingdom is that it saw the first historically attested female king take power. Her name was Sobekneferu (you can see a headless bust of her at the Louvre — and on the left!), although she only ruled for four years, and her death signaled the end of both the 12th Dynasty and the Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom. She was followed by a succession of short-lived kings called the 13th Dynasty, although this is somewhat misleading because few of these kings were actually related. Eventually the unity of Egypt fully disintegrated, leading into the Second Intermediate Period, which would see no significant advancements in almost any aspect of Egyptian civilization. The period following this, the New Kingdom, will be the subject of our next and last post in the Ancient Egypt series.

Hey there! This is the first of a series of blog posts about the different kingdoms of ancient Egypt, by yours truly, Cheyenne, student intern at THATMuse. We’ll start with the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the first of the Kingdom periods.

Pyramid of Djoser, in the Saqqara necropolis near Memphis. 27th Century BC
Pyramid of Djoser, in the Saqqara necropolis near Memphis. Built by Imhotep in the 27th Century BC

First, it’s important to realize that the periods commonly recognized as the Kingdoms were first distinguished by 18th century historians, and these distinctions would not have been used by the Ancient Egyptians themselves. Specifically, the ‘Kingdoms’ refer to high points in the lower Nile Valley civilization. Some historians disagree on when exactly these periods began and ended, but there are some generally acknowledged dates for each of them. What we call the Old Kingdom of Egypt is commonly recognized as occurring from 2686 to 2181 BC, or from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty.

During the Old Kingdom, the kings of Egypt (yes King! They weren’t called by the name of Pharaoh until the New Kingdom) were considered living gods with almost unlimited power throughout their physical kingdom. The first king of the Third Dynasty was Djoser, who moved the capital of Egypt to Memphis. His architect, Imhotep, is credited with developing a new architectural form, the Step Pyramid, which was to be used over and over throughout Egypt’s history. You can see a picture of his famous pyramid to the right.  

Djoser was followed by a succession of kings, most of whom carried on his tradition of building large and grand pyramids, which is why the Old Kingdom is sometimes referred to as ‘the Age of Pyramids.’ In fact, during the Fourth Dynasty, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, and the Sphinx in Giza (below) is also thought to have been built during this time, although there is significant disagreement about exactly when, and who it was built by.  

The Sphinx and Great Pyramid of Giza in front of a bright blue sky
The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Fifth and Sixth Dynasty saw a drastic weakening of the king’s power. Powerful nomarchs, which were similar to regional governors, gained more and more power, lessening the king’s by default. Civil wars after a succession crisis likely contributed to the downfall of the Old Kingdom, compounding by famine and a horrible drought in the 22nd century BC. The Nile didn’t flood normally for several years during a 50 year periods, causing extreme strife and unrest in Egypt. This period of turmoil is known as the First Intermediate Period, and the kingdom does not begin to recover until about 2055, the start of the Middle Kingdom, the subject of our next post.


Because my mother was an art historian, we spent at least part of each weekend prowling European painting collections across New York. I grew up in the West Village and associated uptown with The Met and Frick. To keep me quiet, she concocted all sorts of art games, which I’ve been handing down to my 4.5 year old, Storsh (he thinks of the Louvre and British Museum as playgrounds).

She did such a good job of it that I not only got my degrees in Art History, but when I had Storsh, a premature worry set in over what his relationship to art and museums would be. In his first year of life, I started a company called THATLou, which stood for Treasure Hunt at the Louvre. Now awaiting number two, we’re building THATMuse for museums in London. Our soft launch was generously commissioned by the British Museum, where I hosted a “Friday Late” entitled The Art of Play: A Treasure Hunt Challenge, which took place last week, on 11 September.

“Scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings”

In my experience, children love museums if you know how to engage them. Here are some of my top games to keep them interested when you visit the painting collections.



The Postcard Game

If you’re travelling and it’s a collection you don’t know well, go to the gift shop before you visit the museum and have your children scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings.

For older children


Ask them to find the paintings featured on the postcards within the museum by looking at the country/century of the work on the back of the postcard and finding it on the map. This will develop their navigation skills and give them a layout of the space.

For younger children

Have them pose as the subject for a photo with each work and postcard. If they’re in the habit of taking photos with your phone, trade roles with you posing as the silliest character in the painting. They will enjoy looking back at the photos later.



The Category Game


Find a bench in the museum lobby before entering and ask your kids to choose an animal, a type of food and something like grotesque noses (Storsh loves this one) as your categories.

“Giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!”

Write your categories down then see how many of those animals/foods/body parts your children can find throughout the visit. All kids like collecting things, and having them keep count by writing a line every time they find their item is rewarding. And of course, giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!



The Fashion Game


Before leaving the house, go to your wardrobe and ask your children to feel a variety of materials – scratchy wool, smooth silk, heavy satin, luscious velvet, soft fur etc – the breadth depends on the size of your wardrobe…. Choose one material or more and (assuming it’s not an evening gown!) wear it to the museum so the kids can look at the collection from a tactile perspective. Ask them whether they think it looks real.



The Saint Game

Every time I visit a museum with Storsh, we latch onto a saint and their attribute and devote our whole visit to finding that saint in various paintings. At 3, Storsh started out with St George, easily identified for killing the dragon from a horse. Each time we found a St George, Storsh would make the wild hissing sound of the dragon blowing fire. Sometimes I’d get on all fours and neigh wildly like George’s horse. The more vivid the enactment, the easier to remember the story.

“Quick, show me what Salome does?”

Slowly, one per museum visit, I added in St Michael and St Margaret, both dragon killers but without the horse. Then St John the Baptist. The bloodier, the better. I tend to quiz him on site, so that his connection to the painting is clear, “quick, show me what Salome does?” Sometimes Storsh draws his fingers across his throat with quick precision for a good beheading, other times he dances – much to the bemusement of the guards.

The Prado’s Gioconda

 La Gioconda contemporary copy, 1503 – 1516, Museo del Prado
La Gioconda contemporary copy, 1503 – 1516, Museo del Prado, taken from Wikipedia

The other day I touched on Spain’s Span Across Europe in the general. It’s true that Spain’s reach was just so broad that it’s hard to know what to focus on at the Prado (the royal collection reflecting the crown’s omnipresence). However, what’s better to linger on than a hermetically sealed connection between the Prado and the Louvre? And what better represents the Louvre than Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? It’s a painting I generally avoid – in my treasure hunts, or in person at the museum. Too much hype surrounds her cryptic eyes, too much money spent on magnets with her “enigmatic” smile – not to mention the flocks of publicists who’ve promoted a ‘famous author’, as St Sulpice refers to Dan Brown, and his tours to the Mona Lisa. (and yes I do love St Sulpice for thinking it below them to even name this famous author, resentful of the many tourists who march right past their Delacroix frescoes or Pigalle Baptismal font to find the P/S in the stained glass + Meridian line mentioned in the Da Vinci Code).

But it feels like a knee-jerk reaction to Lisa’s fame to avoid her entirely. So while trawling the internet to soak up all-things-Prado I was truly floored and excited to read about last February’s discovery of a contemporary copy of the Mona Lisa, found at the Prado.

La Joconde’s, or Mona Lisa's, eyes at the Louvre
La Joconde’s eyes at the Louvre, Wikipedia

The picture is more than just a studio copy— apparently it changed as Leonardo developed his original composition. Infra-red reflectography images of the Prado version allowed conservators to see beneath the surface of the paint, to the under-drawing. Apparently the two versions were painted next to one another and painted au même temps! Which means the copy must have been by an apprentice in his studio.

 La Gioconda’s Eyes in the Prado’s version
La Gioconda’s Eyes in the Prado’s version, taken from wikipedia

There was a dull black background that left a deadening effect on the Prado Mona Lisa (who’s generally believed to have been Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo – thus the French and Spanish name for her La Joconde/Gioconda, respectively). Conservationists aren’t clear on why the black over-paint was there, but believe it was added in the 18th century.

Photographers crowding The Prado's Gioconda
The Prado’s Gioconda created quite the stir when it was unveiled last March

In 1992 Art Historian José María Ruiz Manero published a paper called “Italian Painting in 16th Century Spain” where he surmises that the painter was Flemish and that it was probably painted in Northern France. Because the Prado version’s wood was assumed to be oak (rarely used in Italy at the time) Northern Europe was an entirely plausible guess. However, last year the panel was found to be walnut, which was used in Italy — as was poplar, what da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is painted on.

What I don’t understand is why all of the newspapers refer to it as a copy, as in this Guardian article or this Time Magazine piece… If it was painted simultaneously and developed along side Leonardo’s, why isn’t it simply thought of as another painting of the same subject, by a lesser painter?

Even more interesting than this is who painted this Prado version of the Mona Lisa. Though it hasn’t been confirmed (the discovery was only unveiled at a National Gallery (London) conference of conservators, most people seem to believe it was by Andrea Salai, an assistant to and perhaps Leonardo’s lover. More on that for our next visit!


Diego Velazquez, 1634 Medici Gardens in Rome, at the Prado
Diego Velazquez, 1634 Medici Gardens in Rome, at the Prado, taken from Wikipedia

The Prado, like the Louvre, takes a bit of context. It is a Royal Collection, and the royalty in Spain was; Well, full of stories, to say the least. The Spanish had an enormous empire, but two provinces of supreme artistic value were Naples and the Lowlands (they had the Spanish Netherlands from 1579 – 1713 – roughly corresponding to Belgium and Luxembourg).

In 1700 the mentally infirm Hapsburg King Charles II of Spain named Louis XIV’s second grandson, Philip (Duc d’Anjou), as his heir. At 16, Philip V (formerly le Duc d’Anjou) was the first of the Bourbon kings of Spain. Needless to say this forged a Spanish-French alliance to the highest degree… which of course off-set a balance of power in Europe, which in turn brought on yet another war. This one aptly called the War of Spanish Succession (1700 – 1715). I will leave a proper background to this for another time, but if you’d like just the lightest touch of context I recommend http://www.spanishsuccession.nl/ (please note the NL in this URL!). Before moving on, however, I’ll include a painting of Charles II to give you a sense of just how mentally infirm he looked, poor inbred man that he was. He looks as contorted, deranged and plain-old-scary as the Appalachians in the film Deliverance.

 Last Hapsubrg King Charles II painted in 1673 by Juan Carreno de Miranda, Museo del Prado
Last Hapsubrg King Charles II (an argument against inbreeding!), painted in 1673 by Juan Carreno de Miranda, Museo del Prado

Suffice it to say the 17th century saw an artistic surge in the Lowlands with Pieter-Paul Rubens (knighted by Philip IV), Anthony Van Dyck and a myriad of wonderful still life painters such as de Heem (as touched on in the post, Food in Art!), all of whom had either a sojourn to Spain or were directly affected by the Spanish crown.

The inimitable Spanish presence in Naples and Sicily (later called the Kingdom of Two Sicilies) had a profound impact on both the Spanish and Neapolitan Baroque. To name just a few big hitters the magnificent Baroque painter Jusepé de Ribera flourished in Naples (though proud of his Hispanic roots, apparently he signed some of his paintings Jusepé the Spaniard”, suitably acquiring the nickname Lo Spagnoletto), Neopolitan painter Luca Giordano was a court painter in Spain for ten years under Charles II (after having studied in Ribera’s studio), Velazquez was sent by Philip IV to Italy, which is considered a turning point in his style.

Ribera's Ticio, 1632. At the Museo del Prado
Caravaggio’s influence on Ribera is evident with such sharp contrast in this 1632 painting, Ticio. At the Museo del Prado, taken from Wikipedia

All of this is really just a laundry list of countries that were miniscule on the scale of Spain’s global dominance (think of a small continent across the pond called South America, let alone the discovery of another small space north of those Peruvian gold mines). But both the Netherlands and Italy were hotbeds of the Baroque, and their inseparable connection and influence on and by Spain has been the subject matter of the lives and careers of many art historians.

In great anticipation of beholding each of these masters at the Prado in person, I’ve had a ball brushing up on some background reading. And in terms of my belly and our little trio alighting a plane fast as a gazelle?  I’m already packed a day in advance – a rare occurrence!