At Harvard Art Museums, they’ll bring the Rembrandt right to you — and this retiree has made a habit of asking
CAMBRIDGE — On a bleak and rainy Thursday morning, Joseph Westlund squinted out through the vaulted glass roof of the Harvard Art Museums and saw something no one else could. “If you look over there, you can see bright spots,” said Westlund, 82, pointing to the thick, cloudy haze. “And if you look over Somerville there are layers — some darker gray, some lavender, a bit of yellow — there, there, and there.”
His heightened visual acumen might be owed to his three-decade training regimen, as he’s taught himself how to not just look, but really see, with the museums as his classroom. They can be yours, too: Their remarkable policy of pulling out virtually anything for free from their just-as-remarkable collection — a quarter of a million pieces, from ancient history to contemporary art, among the best in the country — might be the most public piece of its public-friendly mission. Don’t just drop in: They’ll need some notice to find what you need. And you’ll need to pay museum admission, too. After that, the collection is yours.
No one has made quite the habit of it as Westlund. Most Thursdays at 10 a.m., you’ll find him here. He started coming more than 30 years ago, while still a professor of English Literature at Northeastern University, where he focused on Shakespeare. When he retired 20 years ago at 62, it became his devoted weekly ritual.
Done with academia, the longtime Cambridge resident was looking for a way to fill his still-hungry mind. “I didn’t want to do what my colleagues were doing in retirement — more books, more editions,” said Westlund, who speaks slowly and with a kindly, thoughtful lilt. “I thought, I’ve been doing this since I was an undergraduate. After 40 years on Shakespeare — who is marvelous, of course — I thought, why don’t I learn something new?”
He favors the historic — the Renaissance, the Baroque, and the ancient world — and rarely dips into Modern and contemporary art. “I don’t know much about the 20th century,” he said. “I’ve seen some early Picassos, and some watercolors. I saw some Mark Rothko paintings that were done for the Holyoke Center that were in terrible shape.”
Westlund also goes to the museums’ galleries, though he admits he’s been spoiled. “They make me a bit uncomfortable — you have to stand, it’s crowded, people are moving around,” he said. “Here, you can just experience it.”
Westlund’s habit was interrupted by a long stretch when the museums closed for a top-to-bottom renovation and expansion designed by architect Renzo Piano. “That was hard,” he said. “I got out of the habit.”
When the new museum complex opened in 2014, combining three separate Harvard art museums in one place, his view expanded. “I just thought, oh, this is wonderful,” he said, sitting in the building’s Art Study Center in the pale light of the day. “These rooms, which give wonderful light, really change the way a painting looks, and how you look at it, over time.”
Despite the gloom, the lights were off. “Oh yes,” Westlund said. “I always ask them to turn off the electricity so I can see the works of art in the light that the artists might have. Though to be quite honest,” he said, laughing, “I really doubt even Rembrandt would have had a studio quite like this.”
The center’s perch near the top of the building, under the slope of its glass roof, says much about the museum’s mission. This is no afterthought, no spare corner or basement tomb. It’s an aerie built for enlightenment, a ceremonial space for the offering of its riches to anyone drawn to communion.
Since it opened, 4,200 appointments have been made, accommodating some 13,200 people. None have had quite the presence of Westlund. He refers to staff by first name — “I usually e-mail Mary” — Mary Lister, the assistant director for collections — “and ask, ‘Can I see these things next time?’ ” he said. When he needs guidance on where to look next, “Miriam” — Miriam Stewart, the museum’s curator of the collection for the division of American and European Art — “gives me good advice.”
His looking has shed light all around. “He brings as much to us as we hope we bring to him,” Lister said. “I think we’re just always so wonderfully surprised by his enthusiasm. His exploration of the collection helps us look at it in a different way.”
Over the years, he’s seen a lot. “By now, I’ve probably seen more of the collection than anyone, and that includes the curators,” he said, laughing. For a scholar, his methods are far from scholarly, and maybe more enriching because of it.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we just look at all the drawings made in Italy, starting in the 13th century?’ ” he recalled. “And we did that, all the way up to the present day. And then we did the same with France.” He frowned a little. “Then I tried Germany. It didn’t move me quite as much, I have to say.”
On this gray day, Westlund has plucked some old favorites: ancient pottery from China, a maritime scene by Francesco Guardi, an array of Rembrandt etchings. “If you look inside, you can see some ancient dirt that’s been left inside,” he said, leaning close to a Chinese pot. He’s seen them before, but often that’s the point. “You don’t realize how much you’ve forgotten until you see things a second time,” he said.
The Rembrandt etchings sit propped on easels, causing Westlund to wax nostalgic. “They used to bring them to me in boxes and I would take them out,” he said, “but I don’t think they do that anymore.” Katherine McGaughey, a collections assistant sitting nearby, wags a finger and smiles. “I guess I was grandfathered, in a way,” he said. “If you drop something — God forbid — don’t try to catch it. You’ll only cause more damage.”
On the wall hangs Guardi’s “The Fondamenta della Zattere, Venice” (1770-80), looking lonely under the bleak sky. “Oh, no,” Westlund said, ambling over to look more closely. “It’s changing every minute. There are pinks sometimes, and mauves and lavenders at others. It’s wonderful to see how it changes, how it’s different, moment to moment. It’s almost living when it has real light.”
Guardi was one of the last of the classical Venetian school, though Westlund often lets such details fall away. “The history helps, but mostly I try to just be aware of the painting, and what it’s doing at the moment with the light. And what it’s like to feel that,” he said. “You have to not think about Guardi, or how much it cost, or how many other people are looking at it at the same time. None of that is about looking, really looking, which is what I’m trying to do.”
It’s a contemplative process, a monastic mind-cleansing that Westlund inhabits almost like meditation, though he shrugs off the word. “I like people, too,” he said, laughing, to make clear he’s no introvert or misanthrope. “And they can also change a great deal,” he said with a smile, “though not always with a picturesque effect.”
If it’s a solitary pursuit, it’s not for lack of trying. “My friends ask me, ‘What do you do when you look?’ And it’s hard to explain,” he said. “I call it experiencing rather than thinking. But words are a trap. Really, you just have to look.”
The Harvard Art Museums’s Art Study Center is open to the public by appointment Monday to Friday. At 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org