by Grant Moser

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently hosting a highly acclaimed exhibition entitled “Van Gogh Up Close” through May 6. It focuses on the last four, years of Van Gogh’s career, a period that saw his paintings change dramatically from the first six years of his career. He had just arrived in Paris to be with his brother, Theo, and saw Impressionist paintings and Japanese prints for the first time. This experience had a huge effect on Vincent, explained Chestnut Hill resident and tour guide for the museum, Margaret McGreal.

“Undergrowth,” 1887, by Vincent van Gogh, is an oil on canvas, 13” x 18 1/8,” on loan from the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands.

“He was very much influenced by the light palette and the bright colors and the real lively brushstrokes,” said McGreal. “The prints had very high horizons, and they also cut things off at the edges. Instead of painting a panoramic landscape, Van Gogh is painting the ground beneath his feet, exactly what he was seeing, with no horizon; you are forced to look at the spot he’s looking at. No entrance into the painting, no exit from it; you are there to look at what he’s presenting in that spot. It’s a beautiful exhibit.”

Though the exhibit started in February, preparation for it began well before Christmas. The 30 guides, including McGreal, took a 12-week training program to be ready to take visitors through the exhibit. The guides educate themselves, with lots of help from the curators.

Two guides coordinate the study sessions and arrange for speakers to deliver lectures about the art. All the guides are assigned a painting to research and present to the rest of the group. It’s important to know about all the paintings, but rarely will a guide talk about each painting on a tour.

“When you work up your tour, which takes about an hour, you can’t present every painting. There are 45 paintings in this exhibit, and if you can get through 25 of them on a tour, you’re doing well. Often times you group paintings together and talk about them as a group,” said the Chestnut Hiller.

McGreal, who declined to state her age, has all this down pat; she’s been a tour guide at the museum for 32 years. Before that she volunteered for four years doing outreach with school children. Her work is a very important and enjoyable part of her life. “It’s a wonderful way to spend time, looking at beauty and talking about beauty. While it is a big commitment, both the training and the work as a guide, we feel we are making a real contribution to the cultural life of the city. There’s also a great camaraderie within the guides, so that’s a plus.”

A big commitment might be an understatement. People interested in becoming guides apply for the museum’s training course, which consists of a spring and fall session. The applicants are interviewed by current guides, who run the training course. Only 25 people are chosen for the course. Once the training course has been completed, guides are expected to work at least 100 hours a year in the museum. And apart from the specialized training for exhibits, there is also a continuing education segment, where classes are given throughout the year on a chosen theme.

It’s all worth it to McGreal. “We are really the face of the museum, so it’s important that we’re well educated. I did the school tours for a long time and found them very enjoyable because kids say whatever’s on their mind. It was really amazing some of the insights you got into a painting or sculpture.”

She’s had the opportunity to see many exhibits over her years at the museum, but two really stick in her mind. “I loved the [Ferdinand-Victor-Eugene] Delacroix exhibit in 1999. His color was very vibrant, and he was a master of color. Also, the [Edgar] Degas exhibit and his dancers. There were a lot of stories to the paintings, and people love that. It gives them a way to remember the paintings rather than just talking about color and line and brushstroke. They see the artist come alive and as a human being.”

McGreal might have an impressive volunteer history at the museum, but she’s hardly the longest-serving. There are several who have been volunteering for 40 years, and one woman who has been there “at least 45 years.” Even with her long service at the museum, McGreal still isn’t allowed to take any of the paintings home. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” she laughed. “We’d have an awful lot more applicants if that were true.”

Her experience with exhibits has taught her two valuable pieces of advice for people. “When people see an exhibit is coming, they ought to get there, because toward the end it tends to get very crowded. And a good time to come is in the afternoon. Everyone always thinks they’ll go in the morning before it gets crowded, but at 11 a.m. people are standing in line to get in. About 2 or 3 p.m. it’s dying down, and that’s the time to come.”

McGreal will be taking the summer off after the Van Gogh exhibit finishes, but her dedication and learning do not stop. “Oftentimes when I’m on break, I’m studying for whatever is coming in the fall, reading about the artists.”

Ed. Note: We were unable to obtain a photo of Margaret McGreal. For information on upcoming exhibits at the museum and how to volunteer, visit http://www.philamuseum.org/.