Redheads, Rogers and Renegade Behavior: Just a Regular Day at the National Gallery of Art with Museum Hack

Photo: Museum Hack

When was the last time you went to a museum and posed with statues, matched emojis to portraits and participated in impromptu displays of tableau vivant? Add to that tales of a lesbian queen, redheaded mistresses and muses, conspiracy theories and male artists who would be unheard of without the help of female counterparts.

If any of the above piqued your interest (as it did mine), then Museum Hack should be high on your radar the next time you’re in New York City, Chicago, L.A. or D.C. (which, by the way, has the best museum in the world – hashtag fact).

I took Museum Hack’s Un-Highlights Tour at the National Gallery of Art. When a tour is described as being for somebody who enjoys speed walking and secretive, salacious and scandalous stories, how could I resist? They also have a Bad $$S Bit%&%& Tour that focuses on the super bad (in a good sense) women in art.

We’ll start with the renegade behavior, because, well, doesn’t everything good start with renegade behavior?

Tableau Vivant

If you watch Gilmour Girls or Modern Family, you may have seen tableau vivant and didn’t even know it. Check out this pic for an example.

Tableau vivant with Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” 1778

Tableau vivant is a real thing where people dress up and replicate paintings. There’s even a whole festival dedicated to this art. It’s called The Pageant of the Masters, and it takes place in Laguna Beach, California. Leave it to the Californians.

While the modern version is certainly interesting, the concept started a long time ago – centuries to be somewhat exact – as a way to tell others about a painting or to “sketch out” a scene. Back then, it wasn’t so simple to whip out an iPhone from your pantaloons and snap a selfie with a Renoir. So they would invite friends over for dinner and “act out” the painting.

The painting we so eloquently re-enacted is John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark.” Brook Watson is the guy, a cabin boy, getting attacked by the shark. He lost his right leg but survived the attack. Now, surviving a shark attack is a big deal, so he commissioned this painting.

“Watson and the Shark”
Photo: National Gallery of Art

The setting is Havana Harbor, Cuba. Sketches were done of the men who helped him (there were three, not nine, in the boat), and they had maps of Havana Harbor to make the background authentic to the time. The African American man in the back is who saved him, which is why he’s portrayed so much bigger. They also didn’t really know what sharks looked like – as you can probably guess from this depiction – so they based it off of a set of shark’s teeth. Seems legit.

Bonus Info: The Gilmour Girls tableau vivant episode featured Renoir, Parmigianino and da Vinci. Modern Family delved into Norman Rockwell with a Thanksgiving-style family photo.

More Renegade Behavior

We were given the task of matching a random emoji with a portrait. The purpose was to really look at faces. Here’s mine. If you know me, I will always gravitate to dogs. Always.

I matched my emoji to this cute little dog. I’m imagining his tongue out.

Here, we were asked to find a sculpture that spoke to us in some way. I chose this pretty little lady. I couldn’t find a dog.

Posing with Randolph Rogers’ Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii

This beautiful work by Randolph Rogers is entitled Nydia, The Blind Girl of Pompeii. Other than this activity, we didn’t spend much time in the sculpture gallery. So I did a bit of research on my own – because that’s just the type of thing I do. I also needed another R for my title. Alliteration is my life.

It turns out that Mr. Rogers (the sculptor, not the best neighbor ever), has a connection to my home city of Richmond, Virginia. He was the artist behind this majestic statue, aptly named The Virginia Washington Monument, which stands at the Virginia State Capitol building. As grand as this is, I’m going to stick with Nydia. She’s a much better listener.

Randolph Rogers’ Virginia Washington Monument


It’s a modern fact that redheads are a force to be reckoned with. They’ve also been in the paintings and portraits (not to mention the beds) of a multitude of artists from de la Tour to Whistler.

We visited James McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” early on in the tour. Notice that beautiful red hair? Her name is Joanna, and she was Whistler’s mistress.

James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

This particular piece is not a traditional portrait. In other words, she did not go to the salon, dress up all fancy-like and sit and pose. All sorts of artistic conjecturing (read: gossiping) was done about this woman in white. Was it her wedding day? What was she doing the night before? What did this mean? What did that mean? Pretty much what goes on these days but in fancier language.

Due to all of this over-analyzation, Whistler coined the phrase about “art for art’s sake.” Basically, he said there was nothing more to it than all those beautiful shades of white, which, by the way, are quite majestic to see in person, even with the dead bear beneath her feet.

Note: While Whistler loved his mother, he was not very nice to other women. We’ll just leave it at that.

We were given the task of finding a BFF for Joanna from among the other paintings and portraits. Can you guess who I chose?

Of course I chose a dog.

Conspiracy theories are all around us. We’re looking at you, Free Masons. But somehow one of my obsessions made its way into our Museum Hack tour. As you may know, I’m a major Disney fan. From the art and animation to the parks, history and Walt himself, if it’s Disney-related, I’m going to be all over it. That’s why this part of the tour was the highlight for me.

This is an interpretation of Mary Magdalen. I don’t know if it’s the beautiful candlelight, all of that negative space, the homage to memento mori or the pop culture connection, but I really love this one. Also, did you notice the red hair?

Georges de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalen (1635/1640) Photo: National Gallery of Art

Have you ever seen this painting or something similar to it? Does it look familiar? Take a look at this …

“what’s a fire, and why does it, what’s the word?.. buuuurn?” #georgesdelatour #magdalenwiththesmokingflame #thelittlemermaid

A post shared by micahanthonyjohnson (@micahanthonyjohnson) on

Yes, along with all of those dinglehoppers and thingamajigs, Ariel managed to snag herself a de La Tour. This one is called “Magdalen with the Smoking Flame,” and it caused quite a stir when the art community and conspiracy theorists figured it out. Why in the (part of your) world would Disney do this? The mermaid, that firey red hair and all the other symbolism supposedly conveyed in the movie. Why, it MUST be a conspiracy!

Perhaps it was just that the movie is set in France (de La Tour was French), animation is art in itself or that artist and Disney Imagineer Glen Keane simply needed a way to convey the concept of fire … under water. As Whistler would say “Can’t it just be art for art’s sake?”


Now you’re probably wondering about that lesbian queen mention. Admit it, you are. Okay, so here’s the story, because you won’t hear this one on any traditional museum tour. The painting entitled “Countess Ebba Sparre (1652/3),” by Sebastien Bourdon, was commissioned (most likely) by Queen Christina of Sweden. Queen Christina introduced this woman, who probably served as her handmaiden, as her lover to everyone she met, with absolutely no shame, in the 1600s.

“Countess Ebba Sparre” by Sebastien Bourdon

Countess Ebba was eventually married off by her family and the two never saw each other again. But this story only gets more interesting. Ready for more on Queen Christina? Well, she became Catholic. With Sweden being a Lutheran country, that could not happen. What do you think she did? As any renegade would do, she abdicated the throne and moved to Rome. The Pope was so impressed, he invited her to the Vatican. She is now buried at the Vatican. A lesbian queen buried at the Vatican. Who knew? Museum Hack, that’s who. Oh, and her internal organs are in a jar upstairs at the Vatican. You’re welcome.

Details on Museum Hack Tours

Museum Hack does tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Private team building tours, public tours and special events – like the Game of Thrones-inspired tour at the MET – can all be found by surfing on over to They also have a great Instagram feed, which is full of the most irreverent and interesting things you could imagine.


I can’t end without sharing a few of my fangirl faves from the visit. I will forever be a fan of van Gogh, and impressionism in general. It was totally worth battling D.C. traffic and participating in sketchy parking procedures to be able to stand in the same room with these works.

I have to also mention that had it not been for van Gogh’s sister-in-law, his paintings would have all been burned by his brother. Go Johanna Bonger. I bet she was a redhead.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Green Wheat Fields”




Mary Cassatt’s “Children Playing on a Beach”


The National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

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