You might not think, at first, that Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London and its companion exhibition, European Masters: Treasures of Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum are prime candidates for a family outing. I didn't either, at first, and I found myself a little sideways when I sat down to write this review. Don't get me wrong, I loved the exhibition, but is it too boring adult for kids? Maybe, but you should take them anyway, and here's why: 1. Because it's a rare opportunity to see a collection that is only on tour because there is a leaky roof at their usual hangout: the Kenwood House in Hampstead, London. There are 50, or so, works from the 1600s to the 1800s, including Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), an unfinished piece that has, until now, never left Europe. The companion exhibit, European Masters: Treasures of Seattle, is a rare opportunity to see what treasures some of our more fortunate fellow Seattleites have hanging on their walls. 2. Because there are pieces the kids can relate to. Check out Gainsborough's portrait of John Joseph Merlin, the man credited with the invention of inline skates, or Wright's Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candelight (which could also be named Two Girls Torturing a Kitten by Candelight) or perhaps my favorite, Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence (pictured at right) — the child's impish face is deliciously mischievous. There are also some images of snarling dogs thrown in for good measure and Lady Elizabeth and Lady Henrietta Finch by Jervas is a dating profile pic that had to actually be painted instead of snapped with an iPhone in the bathroom mirror.
3. Because it offers cool history lessons. The original collector, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, had an affinity for, among other things, paintings of children being children. The philosophers of the early modern period started musing and writing about childhood in a revolutionary way. They began to suspect that a child is not simply a mini-adult, but an evolving and developing human being in need of nurturing. What they started landed us with the kid-centric subculture that is children's museums, child enrichment centers and the like. Use the exhibit as an opportunity to deliver one of those "look how great you have it" speeches. 4. Because you can make a whole day out of it. The kids can practice their museum behavior and when they have reached their quiet-voice-hands-in-their-pockets limit, head to the South Building, Third floor to the Knudsen Family Room where they can be silly and even a little loud, with costumes to try on, drums to bang and blocks to build. The smart folks at SAM added some kid-friendly events to sweeten the deal (see below), but you can always promise the less than enthusiastic museum goer (it works for spouses too) a trip to Pike Place Market in search of treats after the museum. 5. Because art is good for everybody. As parents we look for outings that will appeal to our kids, to engage them, entertain them, and like hiding cauliflower in a grilled cheese, educate them on the sly. Children's museums are truly one of the greatest inventions ever — for a pittance you can spend a whole day exploring, playing and (shhhh) learning. But what about "real" museums — you know, the kind with art? I think many of us shy away from taking our children into adult spaces because we either don't want the hassle or don't think our kids will benefit from an experience that isn't geared toward them. But by doing so we're missing great opportunities to enrich their lives as well as our own.
Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London and its companion exhibition, European Masters: Treasures of Seattle runs through May19. Family Fun Workshop: Strike a Pose: Portrait Workshop Saturday, February 23, 10 a.m.–noon Chase Open Studio Take a family-friendly tour of the exhibition and after the tour, everyone gets the chance to create a portrait inspired by the masterful paintings of women, men and children featured in the exhibition. $7.50-$15, for on adult and up to two kids; additional kid: $5 each (members/nonmembers) Need-based scholarships available About the author: As a child, Emily Metcalfe Smith harumphed her way through countless museums and galleries stateside and in Europe--usually clutching a book for protection against boredom. She understood, even then, that it was an opportunity rare among her peers and eventually became grateful for her ensuing love of fine art.