Way back in 2008, when the Cleveland Museum of Art reopened a good portion of its permanent collection to the public, some friends and I decided to spend an afternoon checking out the galleries. Stepping into the brand new entrance to the 1916 building, the first thing we were greeted with was Jeptha Wade’s Portrait of Nathaniel Olds, a man from the 1830s wearing what appeared to be a sweet pair of sunglasses:
Now these 3D/night vision-esque goggles are intriguing in their own right. But since this was 2008 and those plastic Kanye sunglasses were still popular, another layer of amusement was added when we noted that Mr. Olds’ shades legitimately looked exactly like the pair my friend was wearing:
Since then, every time I’ve entered the museum and seen this portrait in all its glory, my mind has been filled with thoughts of the day my friend matched with a 19th century man who has no qualms wearing his stunner shades at night. As to what these goggles were, though, I still lacked answers… UNTIL I went on the incredibly helpful and cool museum highlights tour last week!
As a public relations intern for the museum, my mission was to take one of these tours and report back on what I learned. Volunteer docents lead the tours each day the museum is open, and they’re visitor-guided, which means you can ask about basically any topic or artwork you want. Well, it’s obvious what I first decided to ask my super informative guide, Zsuzsa Racz. What’s with the shades?!?
Here’s the lowdown: These glasses were, indeed, protective eyewear, designed to shield one’s eyes not from the sun but from the “bright” light of the Argand lamp. People in the early 1800s worried that this new type of whale-oil lamp would ruin their eyesight if they looked at it directly. (Hard to imagine in the days of strobe lights, but there ya go.) Probably more notably, though, the work was painted by Jeptha Wade (as in Wade Oval and Jeptha Drive), a famous Cleveland philanthropist and founder of Western Union… and casually, the grandfather of one of the museum’s founders. The more you know!
Zsuzsa went on to show us the amazing Arms & Armor court (including crossbows and longbows similar to the ones used at Agincourt), the stunning Apollo Sauroktonos (a definite favorite… it’s insane to be in the presence of what’s probably an original Praxiteles), and the museum’s formidable collections of Egyptian, African, and early Byzantine art. Everything was so cool, BUT I have to say, nothing compared to finally having the sunglass mystery solved once and for all.
If, like me, you have burning questions about some of the museum’s artworks (or just want to learn more in general) then definitely treat yourself to one of the museum’s free highlights tours, which take place daily at 1:30 p.m. Visit the calendar for topics.
-- Marisa Pensky
Marketing and Communications Intern