The world being the way it is today — rancor and spite, famine and flood — I needed an escape. I needed to get away from the TV screen and the radio dial, away from the tweet and the news alert.
I needed the calming salve of art.
An art museum is cheaper than a vacation, cheaper than a therapist, cheaper than a prescription — especially in Washington. The National Gallery of Art is free, no appointment necessary. It seemed the perfect place to leave the world behind.
I started in the Rotunda of the West Building. I sat on a stone bench and looked at the statue of Mercury in the center of the fountain. The murmur and footfalls of patrons mingled with the plash of the water, both sounds echoing off the domed and coffered ceiling and creating a pleasant hum of white noise.
Mercury — Hermes to the Greeks — was the fleet- and wing-footed messenger of the gods. I thought of that expression: Don’t shoot the messenger. My mood darkened. There’s a lot of metaphorical messenger-shooting these days. Pushing away the outside world was going to be harder than I thought.
Next I went to the Dutch galleries. They’re among the most comfortable rooms at the National Gallery, and here I made a rule: If I was going to contemplate art, I was going to do it sitting down. I was going to linger at and scrutinize only those paintings that some curator had hung in front of a couch.
I started at “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” by Peter Paul Rubens. It’s big, Imax-size, a high-definition re-creation of the biblical scene. Daniel was lost among the lions and as I settled onto the gray couch, I was lost too. And yet. . . .
The manes on the lions — orangey-yellow fur — looked vaguely familiar, reminiscent of something I was trying to get away from. Time to move on.
Just because there’s seating in front of a painting doesn’t mean that work of art is meant for quiet reflection. In Gallery 56, Napoleon smirked down at me. Hanging across from a banquette in Gallery 106C of the East Building was “Both Members of This Club.” The George Bellows painting shows a white boxer and a black boxer beating each other bloody in front of a baying crowd. Not today. . . .
I worked my way farther into the East Building. You’d think a painting titled “A Moment of Calm” would be calming. But Max Ernst’s claustrophobic junglescape — an impenetrable wall of spiky foliage, each leaf and blade of grass a green dagger — left me feeling anxious.
Next I tried out the room full of Rothkos in the East Building Tower. I don’t normally find abstract art relaxing — I like modern art, but somewhat counterintuitively it requires a lot of thought — but I had the place to myself: an entire museum, mine alone. I sat in peace surrounded by gauzy oranges, yellows, reds and blues.
It had been windy outside when I entered the museum hours earlier, and every now and then I could feel the Tower sway, a reminder that even the sturdiest structures give a little. Bending but not breaking: That’s how things survive.
From the next room came the crackle and chirp of a guard’s walkie-talkie. I awoke from my reverie and decided to head back to the West Building.
Here’s the thing about museums: It’s better to go on your own. No two people like the same art, walk at the same pace, feel the same way about reading the wall text. Reader, if you find someone who agrees when you say, “I’ll meet you back here in three hours,” marry them.
It was in Gallery 67 that I finally found my moment of Zen: Frederic Edwin Church’s “El Rio de Luz (The River of Light).”
I felt like an explorer who had stumbled upon a magical landscape. I was looking at a river whose banks were blanketed in vine-choked trees, lichens and tropical flowers. The sun struggled to burn through the midday haze. At the right was a skein of birds — white wings tipped with black — flying away. In the center was a bright dot of color: the red breast of a black bird sitting on a palm frond.
The entire scene was soothing, soporific.
And then I detected something in the distance, in a spot where the river narrowed. What was it? I rose from the couch to look more closely. Painted on the canvas, smaller than my thumbnail, was a man in a canoe. A few more strokes of his paddle and he would be gone around a bend in the River of Light.
Wait, friend, I thought. Take me with you.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.