"They call it 'Jaws Three,'" said one National, Gallery docent, describing kids' all-time favorite work of art at the gallery.
The plot of "Jaws Three" is taut with drama. Brook Watson, a young sailor, is swimming nude in Havana harbor when he is attacked by sharks. After devouring part of Watson's right leg, the sharks return for more but are fended off by Watson's stick-wielding comrades in a rowboat.
After an adventurous youth, Watson became a solid London merchant. This dramatic highlight of his life was captured on canvas by John Singleton Copley and entitled "Watson and the Shark."
Another gory story with a happy ending that kids love to gaze at in the gallery is Rubens' "Daniel in the Lion's Den." And a sure-fire hit on National Gallery school tours is Murillo's "The Prodigal Son."
"I saw a play of it," one nine-year-old boy told a docent on a recent tour. "There were two real rich guys and one guy wanted to leave so his father gave him money and he went to the city. He spent his money, and he couldn't find a job, so he went home. Then his brother got mad because no one gave a party for him."
Paintings that tell a story, paintings that have a lot of action, and paintings that look familiar all appeal strongly to kids, according to gallery docents.
"A lot of kids tell us they have reproductions of Renoir's 'Girl with a Watering Can' or Homer's 'Breezing Up' at home, so their paintings always get a big response," said a docent.
Sometimes, young visitors to the gallery react to things they only think are familiar.
"Oh, there's Henry Fonda," one kid told a docent as the tour passed Gilbert Sturart's "The Skater."
The question most frequently asked by kids who tour the National Gallery is "Where is the gift shop where we can buy postcards?"
When one docent's own kids were small she used the gift shop gimmick to get them interested in art. She'd let each kid buy one postcard, then search for the painting in the gallery.
"They'd carry the postcards from room to room, showing them to the guards to try to find out where the paintings were," she recalled. "They'd try to decide when they were getting close by the styles of the paintings in the various rooms."
In another, perhaps less educational type of treasure hunt, parents tell kids to go through a gallery and list all the paintings that have bugs in them, or dogs, or bananas. This can keep kids occupied for hours while adults do their own thing at the gallery.
"We don't have a 'Watson and the Shark,'" said Kevin Grogan, a Phillips Collection curator. But kids find a lot to like at the Phillips anyway.
78The best reaction I ever got to a painting was from a four-year-old who said that Paul Klee's 'Arab Song' looked like a lady blowing her nose," said Grogan.
Klee's "Picture Album" also intrigues kids, since they can find small familiar objects half-hidden there -- a fish, a comb, a horse, a girl. But the most popular paintings are less abstract.
"This is usually the big hit in this room," said Grogan, pointing to Degas "After the Bath." "Little boys always stand and giggle in front of this one."
While little boys are partial to naked ladies, little girls prefer horses, according to Grogan. Among girls seven years and up, the Phillips Collection favorites are Bonnard's "Circus Rider" and Delacroix's "Horses Coming Out of the Sea."
The Phillips Collection's star adult attraction, Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," also appeals to kids.
78That reminds me of a TV show I used to like," a five-year-old told Grogan as he showed her the painting. "It was called The Duchess of Duke Street."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't say The Brady Bunch," said the curator philosophically. KID VISITS TO GALLERIES
Many art museums offer organized tours for school groups on weekdays. Contact the education department for details. On weekends, you're generally on your own. Be sure to allow plenty of time for postcard buying in the gift shops.