The Muscarelle Museum of Art opens two new exhibitions spanning centuries and styles Saturday. "In the Light of Caravaggio" and "Women with Vision" mark the institution's final offerings before it closes in May for two years of renovations alongside the adjacent Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.
“There’s a lot of diversity,” said museum director Aaron De Groft, adding that showcasing the diversity of women and minority artists complements the Muscarelle’s larger educational mission. “This laboratory for experiential learning is important.”
The first floor features an array of paintings, drawings, sculptures and more from four centuries of women artists. Works include Georgia O’Keeffe’s still life “White Flower,” Julia Margaret Cameron’s 19th-century photography and two pieces from painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt.
The exhibit exists to highlight visions that were historically overlooked in the art world.
“They didn’t have a fair, balanced playing field, even if the women had means and money,” said John Spike, the museum’s assistant director and chief curator.
The exhibition highlights pieces from the Muscarelle’s permanent collection alongside new acquisitions, such as a portrait by Mary Beale showcasing a young Queen Mary in the first year of her reign.
A trip through time
For the Caravaggio show upstairs, the ambiance particularly comes into play. De Groft said they’re meticulously measuring foot-candles, which illustrate illuminance, to best show off the Dutch and Flemish paintings on display. The museum team also painted the walls a deliberate shade of brown meant to evoke the earthiness and coffee consumption associated with the Dutch.
“We were trying to evoke a certain tone and tenor of the Netherlands,” De Groft said. “There’s an atmosphere. Nothing’s arbitrary.”
The exhibition showcases a myriad of Caravaggio-inspired artists. The collection’s baroque style is adorned with a gritty realism atypical of the time.
“They’re trying to break down the spatial barrier between you and them,” De Groft said.
Spike pointed to Hendrick ter Brugghen’s 1624 oil painting, “The Bagpipe Player,” as an example of that grounded style.
“It’s just a humble musician,” he said. “But he has an innate warmth to his fellow man.”
Some of the works also tackle mythological characters like Narcissus with a then-modern interpretation, something Spike said continues to resonate with modern audiences.
“It means people have not changed,” he said. “People are the same.”
The exhibition marks a collaboration between the Muscarelle and six other museums across the Southeast, include Bob Jones University and the National Gallery of Art, which lent paintings to flesh out the show. It also features a Caravaggio-inspired Rembrandt piece — the only work of his on display in a Virginian museum — conveying a portrait of a woman.
With both exhibitions, the Muscarelle aims to go out on a high note that a wide audience can appreciate.
“They may not know what to expect,” Spike said. “I think the vast quality of this show is an exciting surprise for everybody.”
Want to go?
“In the Light of Caravaggio” and “Women with Vision” run Saturday through May 13 at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, 603 Jamestown Road. Admission is $10 or free for William and Mary students, faculty and staff, museum members and children younger than 12.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.