During World War II Britain's National Gallery exhibited some paintings even as the bombs rained down around it.
It was seen as a place people could go to connect to something, to be lifted out of their wartime anxieties.
Henri Matisse, meanwhile, used to take his color-drenched paintings to the homes of sick friends. "He thought of them as being beneficent," says John Elderfield, chief curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
If Matisse was right, then his paintings are now filling a need for thousands. Although bombs aren't falling on this city, those needing an artistic respite from the onslaught of war news have a plethora of riches to choose from - and are turning out in record numbers.
The popularity of shows here ranging from Da Vinci to Manet - an unusual confluence of big-name artists even for New York - is partly a commentary on New Yorkers' magnetic attraction to anything with buzz. But in a city beset by budget cuts, rising homelessness, and a steady stream of war news, it's also about something more. To the crowds waiting in lines that spill out onto the streets here, these timeless masters offer timely beauty and insight to a world desperately in need of it.
"It gives you back some sanity," says Charlene Poley, a woman from Baltimore leaving Manet/Velázquez, an exhibit that explores the 17th Century Spanish influence on 19th century painters. "Art and music - that's the salvation of humanity. At a symphony, you can close your eyes and be transported to another world. And you can come here, and stand in front of a magnificent painting, and have the same thing happen to you."
For other visitors to the show, the paintings weren't so much a distraction from reality as a way of adding meaning to it. "The Goya series - that hits home," says Bob, a New York businessman who preferred not to give his last name, after looking at Goya's "The Disasters of War" prints. In one, a man is missing an arm. In another, a vulture devours a dead body. "You sort of want to print up several million copies and drop them on the Pentagon," he muses.
Bob's wife, Pat, was even more struck by a 1638 Francisco de Zurbarán painting. "The virgin shining in the night sky to light up for the Christians where the 'evildoers' are," she sighs, shaking her head, as she points to "Battle between the Christians and the Moors at El Sotillo." The message for her is clear: Not much has changed since the 17th century.
Light amid chaos
For centuries, people have looked to art for solace and beauty, or as a means to understanding a complex world. In wartime, say experts, it can take on added resonance, often simply as a symbol of something larger than human conflict. "It's an enormous psychological reminder that despite the fact the world is abnormal, we make it normal," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra. "Art is the ultimate expression of why we fight for freedom."
Mr. Botstein isn't a fan of the current blockbuster exhibits here - "it's art that doesn't rattle" - but says that art in general is important during times of turmoil. "One thing about war and horror and violence is that it is numbing," he says. "One reason art becomes significant is that people feel they are alive again."
In general, museum attendance has been rising nationwide for several years, says Bruce Altshuler, director of New York University's Program in Museum Studies. Museums have become more inviting and less intimidating.
Mr. Altshuler, like others, is hesitant to give too much importance to the effect of war on museumgoers' current habits. But he notes that interest in Islamic art has been up at both the Met and the British Museum in London, something he sees as a sign of the public's desire to learn. "People go to museums not only for aesthetic pleasure but also for an educational respite," says Mr. Altshuler. "It's an engagement in something that's creative and positive."
Weekend lines have been stretching onto the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and - even more amazing for a city where anything off Manhattan might as well be Kansas - here in Queens, where the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is temporarily based. Visitors anxious to glimpse Leonardo da Vinci drawings before the exhibit ended streamed through the Met until nearly midnight last Sunday.
In the airy former factory that is MoMA's temporary home, Matisse Picasso offers an unusual juxtaposition of two longtime friends and rivals: bathers, dancers, fleshy women, and two heartbreaking self-portraits, seen from behind. It's emotion-saturated work, but has little to indicate the men painted through two world wars.
Still, Mr. Elderfield, one of two MoMA curators who put together the Matisse Picasso show, says he's come to feel that his show is actually very much to the point in today's political climate. One of the goals of the show is to break down the traditional Matisse vs. Picasso rivalry, which often boils down to an argument between the sensibilities of North and South. The show's new way of viewing the artists, he hopes, could hold some lessons for people intent on seeing today's world as a clash between East and West. "It's about an opposition to being governed by stereotypes."
Several weeks ago, Elderfield visited the Titian exhibit at London's National Gallery, also packed with visitors. He was struck, in particular, by one unfinished painting of Christ being mocked. The tormentor was dressed in almost obscene finery, and Christ's bindings were held by a smirking child. "It makes you think about suffering in a time of conspicuous consumption," says Elderfield, still enthralled by the painting. "Would it always be amazing? Yes. Is it even more amazing now? Unquestionably."