The Charles Hosmer - Morse Museum of American Art



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The Art Machine

October 18, 2016 through January 27, 2019

In the late 1980s, Hugh McKean, then the Morse Museum’s director, invented The Art Machine. It was a pre-digital educational exhibit designed to encourage a long, thoughtful look at Thomas Sully’s 1871 canvas, Study of the Queen Victoria.

For its seventy-fifth anniversary exhibition, Pathways of American Art at the Morse Museum, the Museum has replicated this clever, and as it turns out prescient, presentation of Sully’s work. The Art Machine is the clearest and most charming manifestation of the educational mission of the Morse and its commitment to providing an experience with original art objects. 

The user was invited to sit in a comfortable chair and view the painting of Queen Victoria—not yet twenty and recently ascended to the throne—in a sequence of timed steps. “The Art Machine is another way of looking at art,” according to McKean’s instruction manual, “an alternative to hurrying past rows and rows and rows and rows of pictures hanging in museums. It operates on the theory that what art offers the viewer depends partially on what the viewer brings to art; that time is an important factor in understanding art; that since art is always someone trying to say something, we must know the language if we want to get the message.”

Following the manual, visitors would have an audience of about ten minutes with Sully’s queen. A 2001 study by Jeffrey K. and Lisa Smith, scientists specializing in the psychology of aesthetics, found that the median time for viewing masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was 17 seconds. In the last decade, the Slow Art movement has spread the core idea embodied in McKean’s Art Machine to the far corners of the art world. Museum-goers are being urged to fully engage their senses, emotions, and minds by spending more time with individual works of art.

What does more than 17 seconds give to the visitor? More intimate knowledge of painter and subject, McKean would say. With Queen Victoria, a sitter posed to her best advantage. Earrings loaded with pigment to catch the light. The large eyes of the Sully’s Victoria “had the doe-like quality of a silent screen star,” McKean wrote. She was a “little beauty, fond of people and parties, and an ideal queen for storybook islands.”

“The Art Machine is designed to build bridges between art and the viewer,” McKean explained. “When instructions are followed, results are guaranteed.”

  • The Art Machine
  • The Art Machine, invented by the Morse Museum's first director, Hugh F. McKean, in the 1980s.
  • Study of the Queen Victoria
  • Study of the Queen Victoria, 1871
  • Oil on canvas
  • Thomas Sully, American, 1783–1872
  • Marks: Copied from my original study of the / Queen Victoria painted in 1838 / IB 1871 / (Thomas Sully) / August / TS
  • (P-015-86)