A sense of belonging at the art museum

The Frick Collection was so elegant; she wasn't. But in the end, it didn't matter.

Courtesy of John Bigelow Taylor
ARTISTIC OASIS: The West Gallery, part of the Frick Collection in New York City, displays paintings by Rembrandt, Turner, and Velázquez.

My first thought as I stepped into the entrance hall of New York City's Frick Collection was, I am so underdressed. The mansion's lavish interior – its mahogany floors and thick carpets, walls draped in beautiful silk curtains, and formidable busts of solemn and important people – served to make my worn jeans, purple NYU sweatshirt, and Doc Martens, feel just a tad improper. And that was only the entrance hall.

When I entered the first gallery, the Boucher Room, I really felt out of place. Cream-colored walls with gilt trim, glowing candelabras, and floor-length windows made the room positively glow. Polished wooden floors, dainty, opulent settees (nothing you would ever dare actually sit on), and the room's namesake paintings, completed its heavenly facade.

Each room was more extravagant and palatial than the next, and I felt as though I were walking through the salons of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV. Yet among all this elegance, it almost felt inappropriate to be there. I didn't feel as if I had a right to tread these graceful halls in my bluejeans and ponytail. I felt as though I should be in a corset and ball gown!

Also, I think I was the youngest person in the entire museum, except for two other obvious college students huddled together in a corner, whispering awkwardly in an attempt to not break the imposing silence. I was glad I had come alone so I would not be tempted to violate the dignified hush. Stately ladies and gentleman walked around solemnly, their faces contemplative yet enlightened. I think my face was more awestruck and sheepish; I felt a kind of guilty pleasure at having sneaked into their grown-up party.

I almost felt as though none of us had the right to be there. Who were we moderns, with our sunglasses and BlackBerrys? What right did we have to tramp through these pristine halls made for delicate heels and rustling skirts? We, who rushed through this lovely place as just one of many stops on our fast-paced agendas; a place that was designed for sitting, musing, and philosophizing. Even these grown-ups, with their pensive looks and stately strides, didn't belong here, I thought. They belonged outside, on the bustling Upper East Side, hailing cabs, talking fast, making and breaking million-dollar deals, making the world turn.

This sense of our being interlopers really hit me when I wandered into the Garden Court, a room of stone pillars and nymphs surrounding a simple fountain and a large, still pool. There sat a brash visitor, sprawled across a small, stone bench with his briefcase and parka strewn beside him. He was hunched over his cellphone texting intensely, completely ignoring his serene surroundings. I had to leave.

During my visit, I was drawn to a particular painting in the dark and solemn West Gallery. Amid the intimidating paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velázquez, and Goya, a glimmer of light illuminated the room. I first thought it was a large window letting in the day's bright sunlight. When I realized it was actually a huge painting – "The Harbor of Dieppe," by Joseph Mallord William Turner – I was overcome with awe and admiration. It depicts a simple scene of an ancient, crowded harbor filled with docks, people, ships, and masts, but the sky reflected in the water is simply radiant.

Without this painting, the room would have been morose. The dark floors, green walls, and rows of serious portraits and solemn landscapes cast a somber pallor. But suddenly, "The Harbor of Dieppe" dared to defy the darkness. It seemed to say "I know I don't quite belong here. I'm bright and out of place, but that's OK. I'm going to light up the room anyway." I felt a kinship with this painting. In my sweatshirt and jeans, I may not have been quite somber enough for the Frick, but I could take my cue from Turner and try to light up the room anyway.

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