David Bruce: The Funniest People in Art — Museums, Music


• In the first half of the 1800s, George Catlin sought to paint Native Americans and Native American culture before the West was tamed and their way of life was lost. Later, he sought to sell his Indian Gallery collection of paintings and artifacts of Native American life to the United States government but failed. However, much of his collection ended up in the Smithsonian anyway, donated to it by the heirs of Joseph Harrison, who purchased the Indian Gallery after it was sold to pay Mr. Catlin’s debts. Ironically, it is a good thing that the U.S. government did not buy the Indian Gallery when it was offered for sale earlier. If the Indian Gallery had been put in the Smithsonian before 1865, it would have been burned up in a great fire that destroyed the Smithsonian building that year. By the way, although this next anecdote is not funny, it illustrates how much one artist valued art: George Catlin made it his mission paint Native Americans and Native American, and he took his mission seriously. One day, after he had wounded a bull bison, he began to make sketches of it. After the wounded bull, near death, fell down, he threw his hat at it and harassed it until it got up again. He felt that such harassment of a dying animal was justified in order to make authentic sketches of the bison. Also by the way, in the old days, Western cowboys did not particularly care for people who didn’t dress like them. A young man newly arrived from Boston once entered a saloon in a Western town while wearing a suit and patent leather shoes. A few minutes later, he emerged with a dazed look, wearing an undershirt and one sock. The cowboys inside had resented his clothing, ordered him to buy a round of drinks, and when he said that all he had was 25 cents, had stripped him and pawned his clothes to pay for the drinks.

• For many years, Carl Fabergé created an Easter egg for the Czar of Russia to give to his wife. Each Easter egg, when opened, contained a surprise, such as a model of the Czar’s private train or a model of the Czar’s yacht or a model of the coach that the Czarina had ridden in to a coronation. The surprise was a surprise to everyone, even to the Czar, who had commissioned the work of art. Once the Czar asked Mr. Fabergé what surprise he was planning, and Mr. Fabergé would tell him only, “Your Imperial majesty will be satisfied.” He was. (By the way, a woman once asked Mr. Fabergé this silly question: “What shape will your eggs have this year?” He joked, “Madam, this year they will be square!”) Today, any museum with a Fabergé Easter egg is a proud museum.

• Many horticulturalists work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They care for the plants used in the exhibits, and they sometimes notice things in paintings that other people don’t notice. For example, Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Rubens Peale, his teenage brother, includes a geranium. Museum horticulturalists look at the painting and wish that Rubens Peale would water the geranium.


• Throughout his life, jazz musician Louis Armstrong made collages about events that were important to him. Many of his collages concerned events from his personal life, but other collages were about events that made history. For example, one collage was created from newspaper clippings telling how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in modern major-league professional baseball. A study of the collages, many of which are on display at Queens College in New York City, shows that Mr. Armstrong followed closely the advances African Americans were making in civil rights.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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