On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a group of Class 6 students* stepped off a school bus and disappeared into a spellbinding world of beauty and wonder. For the next 90 minutes, time stood still as the girls and their teachers explored the extraordinary artwork and books on display at one of New York City’s preeminent cultural institutions: The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan’s Murray Hill.
With bulky coats left on the bus, the students assembled in the Library’s lower level. Across their bodies, they carried mesh “sketch bags” containing small notebooks and pencils. Their chaperones – Humanities teacher Lisa Moy, Art teacher Marianne Brand, Dance teacher June Anderson and Middle School Head Mary Rafferty – divided the students into two sections, each assigned to an official tour guide. Then, their Morgan adventure got underway.
This writer joined Ms. Moy and Ms. Brand’s group the first stop for which was Mr. Morgan’s Library, which encompasses the personal collection of Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), a successful financier and one of the leading collectors and cultural benefactors in the United States. This intricately designed room features dark wood furnishings, stained glass windows and embellished ceilings…and rows upon rows of books, as far as the eye could see. “This is the world’s greatest collection of books,” declared Mr. Walter, their tour guide, as the students took in the exquisite space. The inlaid walnut bookcases – three contiguous rows from floor to ceiling – showcase expansive volumes of European literature from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, including many first editions of classical authors and books that are deemed special and unique.
The students also had the chance to see the famous Gutenberg Bible, which is on display in an elaborate glass case. As Mr. Walter explained, this volume is significant because it is considered to be the first book ever printed. Johann Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press and produced his Latin-language bible in Germany in 1455. “This book has an aura. It is one of the most important objects you will ever see,” said Mr. Walter. Entranced, the students gathered around to observe the revolutionary volume, which was printed on Italian paper rather than the customary parchment. Some girls sketched it in their notebooks.
Before leaving Mr. Morgan’s Library, Mr. Walter let the students in on a little secret. Directing the group to a far corner of the room, he instructed them to look into the bookshelf, beyond the books. “Do you see the staircase?” he asked. They did and were delighted to discover that Pierpont Morgan had installed his own private route to the balconies above.
On view next was the “Magnificent Gems” exhibition. These Medieval treasure bindings are spectacular jewel-encrusted book covers that represent extreme luxury in the Middle Ages, with only a handful having survived. The students marveled at the beauty of the gold, silver and gemstone bindings, which protected manuscripts and enhanced their spiritual value. The stunning Lindau Gospels, one of the world’s finest jeweled bindings from the ninth-century Carolingian Renaissance, was certainly a crowd pleaser. “You can see the gold and gems all around it,” remarked a student. “Look at the symmetry and evenness of everything.”
As they wandered through the exhibit of wall-mounted and stand-alone displays, the students were captivated. Several asked Mr. Walter questions; others walked around on their own, pausing to read descriptions or to view pieces more closely.
“I love this. It’s so realistic,” commented a student.
“This looks three-dimensional, like it’s coming off the page!” added another.
“This is so cool. It’s my favorite so far,” a third remarked.
After the glorious gems, the students moved on to the final stop on their tour, a groundbreaking exhibit of more than 150 master drawings from the world-renowned Eugene V. Thaw Collection called “Drawn to Greatness.” With enthusiasm and curiosity, they viewed works by major artists from the Renaissance to the modern era, such as Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh and Picasso. People, animals, insects, landscapes and water were among the many subjects celebrated in the far-reaching pieces.
Mr. Walter provided a brief overview of the exhaustive collection, allowing time for the girls to peruse the art independently. Quickly, they spread out to explore, their notebooks and pencils at the ready. A few stopped to admire the architectural lines in “The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius” by Thomas Girtin (1775-1802). “Royal Tiger,” by Ferdinand-Eugène-Victor Delacroix (1798 1863) also piqued the students’ interest, although they were sad to learn that the tiger in the drawing was in fact deceased.
One student found the ominous clouds in a work by Giovanni Canal (1697-1768) particularly moving. “It kind of makes me think the world is about to end,” she said. Another felt connected to a detailed depiction of the outdoors by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). “I’m going to draw this one because I really like it!” she exclaimed. The students also appreciated the playful line drawings of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and created Picasso-inspired sketches of their classmates, themselves and even Ms. Moy.
Before they knew it, the tour came to an end. The students returned their notebooks and pencils to their sketch bags, thanked their tour guides for their time and expertise and prepared to board the school bus back to Chapin. One group posed for a photograph in front of posters for the exhibits they had just seen. The resulting image, and their own sketches, will help them remember the wonderful afternoon at The Morgan Library & Museum when time stood still.
*The second half of Class 6 visited The Morgan Library the following day.
Browse photos from the trip below: