Member Spotlight: Joan Smaus

Probably the first of the many times I heard the question was a rainy Morristown morning sometime in the late forties: “Who shall we visit today?” my mother asked my sister and me, pulling a large, dark blue portfolio from the bookcase and opening it on her lap. As she turned the glossy picture sheets inside, we could decide which of the “One Hundred Reproductions of the World’s Great Paintings” we wanted to visit that day: Rembrandt’s Man with a Golden Helmet, Goya’s Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, Botticelli’s Portrait of a Youth, pictures by Monet or Gauguin, Picasso or Cézanne, Watteau, Degas, Renoir, or Redon. We would look closely as Mother read Edwin Seaver’s keenly observed and gently worded commentary on the back of each sheet; talk about what his words meant, about the people who painted or were painted, about the places they lived and the times they lived in; and maybe later, when the “visit” was over, we would set up a picture on a small desk easel and try to copy it. (My own attempts at copying—Henri’s Self-Portrait, Modigliani’s Girl in Pink, Holbein’s Edward VI as Prince of Wales!—always done in pastels, decorated the back vestibule of the house where we grew up.)

Seaver’s One Hundred wasn’t our only contact with art, but it was a treasured one. It brought me close not only to my family but also to a greater world. It taught me how to look and how to see. It gave me the ability to recognize an artist’s style in a color or form or brushstroke, in a technique or composition, in a period or place.

The sense of wonder at seeing an original work in its own environment, in the somehow familiar sanctity of a museum, has never left me. Nor has the joy and comfort of being where art lives: learning, very young, to walk with my hands behind my back, indulging my childhood “delusions of grandeur” in Mr. Frick’s or Mr. Morgan’s places in the city, in Mr. Barnes’s head-tilting rooms, in Mrs. Gardner’s cloistered garden, Mr. Whistler’s Peacock Room; walking, skirt in hand, down the Louvre’s “Winged Victory” escalier, down the Met’s Grand Staircase, dancing in Brooklyn’s Egyptian Court—I pretended they were my own.

“My own” these days has become our museum in Princeton, a place where I feel very much at home, where I can come quietly upon an old friend or find unexpected pleasure in discovering a new one. Here, those friends have included William Merritt Chase’s Landscape: Shinnecock, Long Island, Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue, Klee’s Light Over Yesteryear, Bonheur’s Study of a Dog, and Louis’s Intrigue. And I admit to having become quite attached to Burne-Jones’s Saint Cecilia and the light that shines through her stained glass.

Part of the beauty of this place is the people who populate it, the real people who care for and about it. Among them is a group I’ve become privileged to know—the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. I came to know them quite late in my career, via a dear neighbor who suggested that I come along to a meeting to plan the annual Gala. I found an extraordinary group, dedicated to raising money for Museum programs, keeping the Museum open and free to all, teaching what it contains. Whether welcoming visitors at the reception desk, running the gift shop register, planning or “manning” the Gala, or becoming a docent, each Friend serves an important role in the life of our community, in the lives of our young people—influencing not only what they do now, but who they’ll be in the future. Art lives in this group of people and through them is transmitted to others.

I’ve seen it in action. Not very long ago, as a visiting youngster ran to take the hand of a docent about to begin her tour, I saw the light in the child’s face—the same anticipation our old portfolio engendered in us— and I watched the joy of discovery, the sight of a new friend come alive in another child’s eyes.

Joan Smaus
Writer and 2012 Gala Cochair