A friend and I were playing with the acoustics in a domed room in the European Art section of the Yale University Art Gallery. If one person stands in the corner to the left of a statue and another stands with their ear to the opposite corner, the first person’s whisper will be amplified by the dome and heard clearly by the second. Meanwhile, the symmetrical echoes caused by the dome meet and cancel each other out in the dead center of the dome; talk and walk through the center of the hallway and you’ll find that when you hit the center, the natural reverb in the room suddenly disappears.
We were testing that out when a passing docent interjected: “If you think that’s cool, then come with me.”
The Yale University Art Gallery is home to masterworks of art and design that run from ancient to modern and span the globe. However many times I visit the gallery, I always seem to see something new. On a recent trip, a friend and I were treated to a whole host of them by the museum staff.
We followed the docent downstairs to the American Decorative Arts collection, to portraits of Edward Tyng and Anna Susan Dummer. Commodore Tyng was captain of the fortifications around Boston and captain of the man-of-war Prince of Orange. Among his many accomplishments, Tyng successfully fought off French privateers and was awarded a silver cup, which is housed in the glass cabinet across from his portrait. Sharing the wall is Anna Susan Dummer of colonial Maryland. An apocryphal story about the two contends that they met while Dummer was visiting Boston, and she was quite taken with him. Though she married John Powell, she never forgot about Commodore Tyng.
They remained separate in life, but in the museum, their portraits are bound by an optical illusion. Look at the portrait of Tyng through the glass case that holds his silver cup and you’ll see the two paintings holding hands.
Look through the other side of the case at Dummer and Tyng appears over her shoulder. We asked a nearby security guard if he knew of any other hidden gems like this.
He took us to see Mark Twain.
Renowned muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield is best known for his work inside the dome of the Library of Congress’s reading room. The ceiling he painted for the drawing room of the Huntington mansion in San Marino, California, now stays in American Decorative Arts just a few rooms away from Dummer and Tyng. The painting, titled Triumph of the Dance, features a cheeky secret. The story goes that famed humorist Twain paid a visit to the California mansion while Blashfield was painting. Twain remarked that the painting was coming along well except that Twain wasn’t in it. Blashfield went along with the joke and painted a secret portrait of Twain into the clouds. Find the woman with the outstretched arm on the left, and follow where she’s pointing.
There, behind a heavy streak of cloud, is Mark Twain.
Heading up the stairs to American Painting and Sculpture, we found works by Eakins, Church, and naturally Connecticut’s own John Trumbull. In addition to many of his works, “the painter of the revolution” himself, along his wife Sarah Hope Harvey, reside within the gallery.
A large plaque sits in the floor of the Ancient Art wing (formerly the Trumbull Gallery) marking the couple’s original place of rest; they were re-interred elsewhere during renovations in 1867. Trumbull’s portrait of George Washington is considered a high point in his career and a benchmark of American painting, and per his request, Trumbull was laid to rest beneath it. The portrait now resides upstairs in Street Hall, with John and Sarah interred in the basement of the same building.
Following a tip from another kind gallery guard, we visited a secret gallery across the building on the top floor. We took the elevator up to the third floor and walked through my favorite wing, Modern and Contemporary and Design. The gallery holds a world-class collection of Dada, futurism, and surreal art by visionaries like Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Bauhaus via Yale’s Josef Albers as well as more contemporary works by Basquiat and New Haven’s own Titus Kaphar. One flight up the spiral stairs and we found a different kind of modern art.
It lacks the gravitas of rest of the collections, but the back of the staircase across from Drawings and Prints houses an interesting exhibit of its own. A payphone hung there for many years, and while students of art and design would sit on the phone, they would doodle on the walls around it. The phone was removed some years ago, but the museum curators elected to leave the graffitti as it was. The wall is a jumble of notes, drawings, phone numbers, and jokes spanning decades. Today it stretches across about half of the spiral stair’s casing, almost visible but just out of view.
Following one last tip we headed down the stairs to the ground floor to catch one more often overlooked exhibit. Just off the foyer, guarded by an aggressively neon Sol Lewitt, is a piece of Japan’s floating world — the Happy and Bob Doran Tea Gate, created by master temple-builder Paul
Discoe in 2015 and offering a place for contemplation.
The next time you visit the gallery to see your favorite Mondrian, or to see the ancient graffiti of Dura-Europos, take a look around for some of these hidden features — and talk to the staff. Who knows what else they may be able to show you?
Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., is free and open to the public. Visit its website here for hours and more information.