- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

Don’t know much about art history?

Plenty of local teachers are available to change that.

Area universities and museums offer a wealth of courses on every period from the Renaissance to the Harlem Renaissance for young and old alike.

Thomas Crain, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Odyssey Program, says the university offers roughly four art history courses each semester designed for the general public.

The most popular involve modern or contemporary art.

“People may understand why they respond to a Michelangelo or da Vinci, but they’re not sure about abstract expressionism,” says Mr. Crain, whose Odyssey classes attract a crowd with a median age of about 45.

The Renaissance is another art period that draws a crowd, Mr. Crain says, as does anything related to impressionism.

Generally, older students seek out art history classes to prepare for visiting museums during overseas trips and to learn about the information communicated in certain paintings.

“In Renaissance and baroque art, Christian symbolism is ubiquitous. If you see a lion, then you know Saint Jerome can’t be far behind,” he says. “Students want to ask about iconography or specifics of a work of art.”

This fall promises lessons on Claude Monet, including field trips to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum.

Some of Odyssey’s past classes included “Understanding Modern Art,” “The Language of Art” and”Coming to Terms With Contemporary Art.”

For more information on Odyssey classes, visit www. odyssey.jhu.edu. Information about fall classes should be available by the week’s end.

Gwen Everett, who teaches “Douglas, Duke, and Dubois: Art of the Harlem Renaissance,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, says she incorporates music, visuals and videos to help students flesh out the past.

“They come away with an understanding of the breadth of this period and why people still refer to it in terms of its impact on both African-American and national art movements,” says Ms. Everett, who also teaches African-American art history at Howard University.

One way she keeps students’ interest in the material is by offering context to the works.

“There’s no way to do this without looking at the cultural and political issues [surrounding the art],” she says. “It’s not a class about race, but race is a very important topic. Students have broad opinions about it.”

Art classes tend to be of a different order from traditional lectures or studies, so would-be students should prepare for that, she advises.

“For people who are looking for real, tangible right-or-wrong answers, art history can be a little too open-ended,” she says.

Seniors often have the most time to catch up with art’s rich history. Anne Wallace, program coordinator with American University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR), says its members are “voracious” art history consumers.

The institute offers a sprinkling of art history classes in both its fall and spring semesters. Upcoming classes include “Six Centuries of Women Artists” and “The Art of Rembrandt: Themes and Issues,” Ms. Wallace says. (Visit www.american.edu/ilr for more information.)

These programs generally are led by a peer, someone typically steeped in information about the class subject. Upcoming art classes will be led by doctoral recipients and someone with a master’s degree in art history, for example.

Ruth Robbins, education and cultural program coordinator with the Smithsonian Associates, says the group’s classes specifically are geared for those who haven’t had an art history class.

Should a student have a smattering of knowledge on the subject, Ms. Robbins says, the instructors will give that student extra information to keep him or her engaged.

The classes offered by the Smithsonian include surveys introducing students to art history plus sessions dealing with the evolution of line, shape and color.

Ms. Robbins says recent high-profile art thefts have sparked interest in art history, as has the blockbuster book “The Da Vinci Code,” which dabbles in the great painter’s work.

The average age of the program’s students tends to be “45 up to retired folks,” she says.

For information on classes, visit http://residentassociates.org.

Sometimes, the best art history lesson can be had by stepping inside a museum. Eric Denker, senior lecturer in the National Gallery of Art’s Education Division, says the gallery offers docent-led tours daily.

The tours, begun every half-hour, may focus on a particular artist or a special branch of the museum. Hourly lectures begin at noon and 1 and 2 p.m. and often zero in on special exhibitions, Mr. Denker says.

The public gravitates toward impressionism and 19th-century French artists, he says. The former features “wonderful, bright paintings” that attract less serious art lovers.

“Most impressionist paintings are images of everyday life,” he says. “Impressionism is the doorway into art, like Beethoven is a doorway into classical music.”

Ms. Robbins suggests that those seeking to learn more about art history do their homework on the classes they’re considering as well as the instructors who teach them.

“Find out about the program. It’s better if [the teacher] has a Ph.D. and teaches at a university,” Ms. Robbins says.

Ms. Everett suggests that budding students choose the courses themselves based on personal interest.

“The most important thing is to select a topic of interest,” she says. “Somehow, the topic has to resonate with you personally. A teacher can’t force it.”

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