Museum Minute: Where Elegance Meets Fear

May 31, 2018

It’s a weird story not often told at museums since it’s against the rules. But at the Whitney Western Museum of Art, there’s one painting visitors can’t resist touching.

Contemporary artist Tom Palmore painted Where Fear Meets Elegance in 1996. The four by four-foot portrait of a mountain lion commands your attention when you walk into the gallery.

Palmore is known for photorealistic paintings of animals, often on large scale-canvases. And this is no exception. Palmore’s mountain lion is both elegant and, to its prey, feared, as the title suggests.

“...An animal doesn’t come to life...until the eyes are just right,” Palmore has said. At the Whitney Western Art Museum, visitors have described a Mona Lisa effect. They are magnetically drawn to it but then as they begin to walk away they get a sense that they’re still being watched.

The most realistic part of the painting is in the detail, it seems like every individual hair on the lion’s coat stands out. So much so that people can’t stop themselves from petting the cat. It became so bad for the conservation of the painting, the museum had to put a plexiglass cover on it. Yet, the cat still watches you as you tour the rest of the gallery.