Not to Be Missed:
The National Gallery of Art (NGA) is one of the world’s best collections of art. Within the United States, only New York’s Metropolitan Museum compares in terms of scope, scale, and quality. The NGA’s collection is so large that it spans two buildings and an outdoor park: The West Building focuses on European and American painting and small sculpture, from 13th century religious canvasses to mid-20th century Picassos and Rothkos. The East Building contains modern art from around 1900 to the present. The Sculpture Garden contains even more modern art, on a larger scale, and outdoors.
Be ready to walk when you visit the NGA. From the western edge of the Sculpture Garden to the eastern edge of the East Building (the West Building is between the two) it is just under a ½ mile. With all of the small rooms in both buildings, the multiple floors, and the underground walkway between the two wings and you can easily put a few miles on the odometer without going outside.
The NGA recently acquired the Corcoran Gallery collection of more than 17,000 works from Europe and America. About a third of these will be integrated into the NGA’s displays by the end of 2016. In the meantime, below you’ll find comprehensive tours of the West Building and Sculpture Garden.
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Spend a few minutes in Gallery 31, which has a couple of Italian landscapes by Canaletto, from around 1740, that show how much more detail artists were including in their works. In particular, we like Canaletto’s The Square of St. Mark’s, Venice, with how Canaletto shows different interactions among the people of the square.
The National Gallery’s collection of Dutch, Flemish, and Netherlandish art is one of its strengths, and the displays begin around Gallery 39, which shows Netherlandish sculpture and painting beginning around 1400. The galleries are arranged roughly chronologically, so you can see the evolution of subject matter, detail, and perspective of these artists as with those of the Italian Renaissance.
Our tour of the highlights includes Gallery 42, which features early 17th century Flemish portraits by Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Reubens. (Van Dyck served an apprenticeship in Reubens’ studio.)
Although he wasn’t British, Van Dyck was part of King Charles I’s royal court, and did many portraits of royalty and nobility during this time. Several of Van Dyck’s portrait conventions are on display here: showing his subject’s entire body while standing (or three-quarters, if sitting), as in Maddalena Cattaneo and Henri II de Lorraine; and draping his status-conscious clients in expensive clothing against dramatic backdrops, such as Marchesa Balbi and A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son. Also notice how most of the portraits are designed so that the subjects are looking down at the viewer, e.g., Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo.
The one Peter Paul Reubens work in Gallery 42 is an early one, Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, from 1606, but it’s amazing for detail and technique. Notice Reubens’ ability to capture light shimmering in the fabric of the marchesa’s silver gown, and the detail in the gown’s lace collar. It looks like Reubens went out of his way to showing as much expensive clothing as possible – although it’s a big canvas, the only parts of the marchesa’s skin you can see are her hands and face.
Unofficial Tip: More Van Dyck and Reubens portraits can be found in Gallery 43. Reubens’ allegorical paintings are in Gallery 45.
Next, head to Gallery 48 for 17th century works by Rembrandt and his students. Considered the best of the Dutch painters, and among Europe’s finest, Rembrandt van Rijn was known for his unembellished portraits (including many self-portraits – see his 1659 Self-Portrait here), and narrative scenes from the bible and mythology.
Like his peers, Rembrandt used light and darkness to govern the mood of a painting. In Gallery 48, notice how his portrait subjects’ noses are used as the dividing line between lighter and darker areas of the canvas. Even in the landscape The Mill here, the “nose” of the windmill is the demarcation between sunlight on the right and storm clouds on the left.
Works from the last 15 years of Rembrandt’s life are in Gallery 51, plus those of his workshop. These are both portraits and biblical scenes, and they tend to use darker colors than his earlier paintings.
No trip through the Dutch artistic scene would be complete without a visit to Vermeer, in Gallery 50A. Vermeer is known for capturing incredible details in his work, and very realistic depictions of the interplay of light and dark. That he did this without any formal training has led some to suggest that Vermeer had mechanical help. The most common theory is that he used a camera obscura – a series of lenses and mirrors – to project images from life onto a canvas, which were then painted over. The evidence is circumstantial; the edges of some objects in Vermeer’s paintings are curved where they should be straight, suggesting they were viewed through a rounded lens. However, there’s no record of any such device listed in Vermeer’s estate after his death, which details everything from finished art to the paint supplies he had on hand.
With or without mechanical aid, a couple of the Vermeers in this room are fantastic. Woman Holding a Balance shows a young woman standing at a table, holding a small scale. The sun streams into the room from a window above and to the left, and the light falls unevenly on the textured gray wall behind her, as well as the blue robe she’s wearing. The sunlight also falls on the pearls and gold she’s weighing, while in the background is a painting of The Last Supper.
What’s Vermeer trying to say? The Netherlands was prospering when Vermeer painted this scene. Their ports were used to import good from across the seas, which they then distributed through canals and rivers to the rest of Europe. Merchants and traders were becoming rich. Vermeer’s message to the viewer may be that the pursuit of treasure needs to be weighed against its eternal consequences.
A couple of other things to note with Vermeer: most of his paintings are of domestic scenes (in fact, the same rooms may be shown in multiple paintings), and many feature women. Two examples in this room are both from around 1665: A Lady Writing and The Girl with a Red Hat.
The vast majority of these works are devoted to themes from early Christianity and they are important and beautiful. That said, there are only so many paintings of Saint Jerome that you need to see (especially if you’ve got children). Here’s what you need to know and view in these galleries to save time and interest.
Unofficial Tip: To keep small children interested in the art, have them find the oldest paintings that contain a dog or cat.
Start with the d’Arezzo painting Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Saints in Gallery 1. Thirteenth-century paintings were concerned almost exclusively with religious subjects and the morality lessons they conveyed, without regard for background, realism, or perspective. Madonna and Child is a good example: a front-facing, two-dimensional image of Mary and Jesus, the basic outline of a simple throne on which they’re seated, and small, full-body representations of four saints in what would be the background scene. The infant Jesus has the features of a tiny adult, not a child, and there’s little evidence of a maternal bond with Mary. (That would also change over time.) Notice also that most of the art in this room was painted on wood panels, not canvas.
Next, pop in to Gallery 4 and take a look at The Annunciation by Fra Carnevale from around 1445, about 150 years after the d’Arezzo. It’s still a religious painting, but there’s a background scene with a tree, blue sky, and clouds. In addition, the lines of the garden squares and those of the building facades all converge to a single point in the distance, giving the viewer the impression of depth and perspective.
Another work to note in Gallery 4: In Madonna and Child by Domenico Veneziano circa 1445. Contrast this with the d’Arezzo painting Madonna and Child you saw in Gallery 1; here Jesus is depicted as an infant, with chubby legs and arms, and holding Mary’s fingers in the way a baby plays with its mother.
Also in Gallery 4, compare the spare styles from Gallery 1 with the complex imagery and symbolism of The Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi c. 1440. There’s a lot of detail here, much of it having an implied message for the viewer. For example, the baby Jesus’ holding of a pomegranate is significant, because the fruit’s abundant seeds were said to represent either the number of believers in the church, or the eternal life offered to them. Likewise, the peacock in the top middle represents immortality. Keep an eye out for these symbols in other paintings of this era.
One more thing to note in Gallery 4 are a few non-religious portraits, such as the one of Matteo Oliveieri circa 1430, showing how painters were starting to earn a living from secular commissions rather than just religious work. That said, these were plain profiles, usually just the head and shoulders, with simple backgrounds and none of the personal effects contained in later portraits. Compare that approach to the da Vinci that follows.
Gallery 6 has the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the United States, a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci from around 1474. Here, the background contains a juniper bush, which da Vinci chose because of its association with faithfulness. da Vinci also painted the back of this panel, decorating it with juniper, a palm branch, and laurel wreath. An inscription reads (in Latin) “Beauty adorns virtue.”
If you’re a fan of Renaissance art, check out the NGA’s Raphael collection in Gallery 20: Saint George and the Dragon, the Alba Madonna, and the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna are here, plus a portrait of Bindo Altoviti. Raphael was a contemporary of both Michelangelo and da Vinci, and the three are considered the masters of the Italian Renaissance period (roughly 1490 to 1530).
Of his many skills, Raphael was known for his realistic paintings of people, and the Bindo Altoviti is a good example of this. Notice how well defined Altoviti’s hair is, and how the light hits it. Compare the Altoviti to the adjacent Portrait of a Young Woman by Girolamo di Benvenuto from 1505, to see how much more lifelike were Raphael’s works than his contemporaries.
One technique Raphael may have picked up from da Vinci is the arrangement of subjects in a scene to form a rough pyramid shape. The placement of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary in the Alba Madonna is an example; notice how Mary’s left arm is bent to create the right side of the triangle formed by Jesus and John on the left.
Three other works in this room – those attributed to Pietro Perugino or his follower - are related to Raphael because Raphael was apprenticed to Perugino sometime prior to his 17th birthday.
There’s more Italian Renaissance in Gallery 23, with Titian portraits and allegorical works (his The Feast of the Gods, with Bellini, is in Gallery 12), and Tintoretto and Veronese in Gallery 24.
Unofficial Tip: Such is the largess of the NGA that they’ve got a Rembrandt - Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat - in the West Stair Lobby. Just like at our house.
If you’ve got small children, make your way over to Gallery 29 and a quick lesson on perspective. Position your children at the far left of The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi, and have them focus on the neck of the violin on the table (it’s facing toward them). Next, have the kids move slowly to the right side of the painting, while keeping their eye on the violin. They should see the violin’s neck “follow” them as they move. That’s perspective.
Galleries 51 through 59 include works from Europe and England from Vermeer’s time (circa 1630) through the 18th century, organized by region and artist rather than by year. Spanish art, including works by Goya, are in Gallery 52; French artists are in galleries 53-56. British landscapes, including those by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, are in Gallery 57; portraits are in Gallery 58.
Gallery 59 is a transition from British portrait artists to American, around the time of the American Revolution. Two early portraits by Rhode Islander Gilbert Stuart are here: The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Skater launched Stuart’s career as a portrait artist. He went on to paint more than a thousand subjects, including U.S. Presidents Washington through John Quincy Adams. An unfinished Stuart work of Washington is the basis for George’s image on the back of the U.S. $1 bill; you can view the painting at the National Portrait Gallery nearby.
If you’re a fan of American landscapes, and the Hudson River School style in particular, you’ll want to see Gallery 60’s four-panel installation The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, the school’s founder. In this series, Cole expressed human life as a solitary boat trip down a river. The calm river of youth, lined with green trees and lush landscapes, give way to storms and rapids of manhood, and the desolate surroundings of old age. (The Gallery should serve free drinks to anyone over 40 viewing this set.) More Hudson River School artists, including Cole, A.B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt, are in Gallery 64, and in Lobby C off the East Garden Court.
Unofficial Tip: If you’re a fan of Hudson River School artists, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art has a slightly better collection than NGA, including many works by Albert Bierstadt.
If you’ve got the time, stop off in Gallery 69 to see two wildly different approaches to portrait paintings, by Americans James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Sargent was considered the best portrait painter of his era, and these four examples are a good representation of his skill. In Ellen Peabody Endicott, Sargent paints a proud woman in opulent, detailed black and white dress, set against a rich red background. You can imagine any of these being displayed proudly in the subject’s homes.
Contrast Sargent’s style with that of Whistler, in which one color usually dominates the canvas. The upper two-thirds of Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, for example is essentially different shades of white surrounding the girl’s face. (It’s done to great effect, though.) His Gold and Brown: Self Portrait is an ode to earth tones; and when viewed with the greys in the George W. Vanderbilt, it makes you wonder if Whistler could have used more coffee with his breakfasts.
Main floor rooms 80 and above are dedicated to Impressionism. Up to this point, we’ve been touring the galleries in numerical order starting with Gallery 1. If you want to follow Impressionism’s development from the early 19th century on, though, start with Gallery 93 and work your way down to 80.
What is Impressionism, and what makes a painting or artist an Impressionist? At the risk of sounding like engineers in an art gallery (which we are), we think there are a few general characteristics:
You could reasonably argue that other characteristics include the use of commercial paint with artificial pigments; painting outdoors; and completing a painting quickly (often in a day).
The term impressionism wasn’t coined until 1874, although artists including Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in Paris had been working in (and defining) the style for more than a decade. That style is so different than what came before it that Monet and Renoir can be considered among its founders. Even then, they drew at least some inspiration from early French artists that are on display here in the National Gallery. We’ll begin there.
Start your tour in Gallery 93, with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1838 landscape A View near Volterra. Painted 25 years before the birth of the Impressionist school, it’s a fairly traditional landscape. A horse and rider, with their backs turned to you, are nearing a stand of trees at the top of a mountain path, and Corot has put enough detail into the work that you can clearly make out the tiny metal lock and breech of the rider’s musket. But notice the fallen tree, vegetation, and path in the foreground. Rocks are shown as little more than taupe ovals, made with short brush strokes; the white moss on the tree is represented by white down strokes with a stiff brush; and the nearby shrubs are loosely arranged dabs of green. If John Singer Sargent had painted this, you’d be able to identify the species of each plant by its leaf edges, and the horse would be wearing a burgundy robe with lace bridle.
Other Corot paintings are in Gallery 93, from which you can see his clear move towards impressionism. Done in 1872, more than 30 years after A View Near Volterra, Corot’s Italian Girl is much more aligned with the style in both technique and subject, as evidenced by her face and apron.
Moving to Gallery 92, you can see in the landscapes of Eugène Boudin a continued shift away from detailed representation and toward capturing the colors and shapes seen at a particular moment in time. In Jetty and Wharf at Trouville, pay attention to how Boudin paints the clothing and faces of the people in the lower right, especially the mother, father, girl in a white and blue dress, and their dog.
Gallery 89 mostly covers the years 1869 to 1880, and includes Manet’s The Railway; Renoir’s Pont Neuf, Paris; Camille Pissarro’s Place du Carrousel, Paris; Bazille’s Edmond Maître; and Mary Cassat’s The Loge. Cassat was an American living in Paris and was part of the impressionists’ circle. Her work here exhibits all of the characteristics of that style - notice how Cassat chose the audience as her subject, not the performers.
There’s more Pissaro in Gallery 88, which covers 1880 to 1891, but the real draw here is Georges Seurat, father of pointillism. Remember that one trait of impressionism is the use of short brush strokes and bold, unblended colors. Seurat took this to the extreme by using thousands of tiny dots of color to create entire paintings. Stand as close as the security guards will allow you to get to Seurat’s Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy, and you’ll see nothing but those tiny dots. Step back three feet and the dots form an ocean, sky, coastline, and mountains.
Gallery 87 is devoted entirely to Claude Monet landscapes from the period 1894 – 1908. The National Gallery has an interesting arrangement here, showing how Monet painted the same subject in different ways depending on the time of day. Two 1894 paintings of Rouen Cathedral, West Façade are side by side. One is done in the pale whites and greys of a cloudy day, the other with blue skies and buildings reflecting the golden sun. There’s also a trio Waterloo Bridge paintings from 1903-4, done on a “gray day,” “at dusk,” and “at sunset.”
Gallery 86 focuses on portraiture and scenes from the lives of everyday Parisians, mostly through works by Mary Cassatt from 1878 to 1905.
More Monet landscapes are in Gallery 85, including The Japanese Footbridge. In 1893, Monet bought some land with a pond next to his house in Giverny, France, and diverted a small stream to run through the property. He built a small footbridge over the pond, in which he planted everything from native water lilies to exotic species from around the world. And in 1899, with the gardens established, he began a 20-year period of painting what he saw in his yard, including the Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge series. This work is one of 12 he painted from the exact same spot in his yard that year.
Unofficial Tip: Monet’s Giverny house, gardens, and bridge still exist and they’re open for tours during the spring and summer. http://giverny.org
A dozen paintings from Paul Cézanne are in Gallery 84, covering the years 1873 to 1906, most from 1890 on. What’s interesting here is how Cézanne’s style changes from impressionism to focusing on the geometric shapes of his subjects. That shift would influence Pablo Picasso, among others, in the early part of the 20th century.
The two early works, House of Père Lacroix from 1873 and Landscape near Paris from 1876, are in the Impressionist style, with bright colors and an emphasis on light and color, with lots of quick brush strokes.
You can see Cézanne’s style change, however, by 1883’s Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque. Look at how Cézanne painted the hills and grasses in the foreground, using aggressive, short, diagonal strokes, all in the same direction. Also notice Cézanne’s playing with depth, perspective, and shape in the houses. Two other paintings, 1888’s Harlequin and Boy in a Red Waistcoat, show Cézanne manipulating color and geometry. In particular, Boy in a Red Waistcoat deserves its own branch on the Impressionist family tree. While it’s got the typical markers of an Impressionist painting – focus on color and light – Cézanne adds a focus on shapes. Above the boy’s head is an oval hat; his vest lapels and right arm form triangles; his left arm is a line, and the curtains behind are curves (and blunt ones at that). The trees in Château Noir from 1900, also in this room, are another example of Cézanne’s shift away from impressionism.
More well-known artists are in Gallery 83, including Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. Degas is an interesting inclusion here. He was living in Paris and part of the inner circle of Impressionists during its peak, and his subject matter and painting technique were similar to that style. But Degas used darker colors, especially black, more frequently, preferred painting in his studio instead of on location, and often took weeks to complete a work, instead of a few days. Degas’ The Dance Class, on display here, is a good example of his work.
To paraphrase Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Gallery 66), insanity is to art as garlic is to salad. And in that case, it’s a good thing that Vincent van Gogh wasn’t a chef, because he exhibited signs of mental illness for most of his short, prolific life. Although van Gogh was Dutch, he lived in Paris from 1886 to 1888 and counted Pissarro, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec among his close friends.
The van Gogh works here were all painted after he left Paris for Arles, France, in 1888, and before his suicide in 1890. The two earliest here, portraits Roulin’s Baby and La Mousmé, show van Gogh’s bold brush strokes for both the subject and background, heavy use of paint, and the use of colors to express mood.
van Gogh was visited by Gauguin at Arles in the fall of 1888, and they painted together for a time. van Gogh greatly admired Gauguin, but their relationship soured, however, culminating in van Gogh cutting off his own left ear in December, 1888. That’s why van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait, shown here, and all later examples, depicts the artist from his right side (it’s a mirror image). Van Gogh died in 1890, but left more than 2,000 paintings and drawings.
Both van Gogh and Degas were fans of Gauguin’s style, which most notably departed from Impressionism by painting natural objects in artificial colors. His travels to the South Pacific, including Tahiti, came at a time when Europe was fascinated with that part of the world. Gauguin’s works from this time on display here include Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), The Bathers, and Te Pape Nave Nave (Delectable Waters). Take a good look at how Gauguin paints the human bodies in Te Pape Nave Nave, and see if you can spot similarities in Picasso’s Two Youths next door.
Our tour of Impressionism ends with in Gallery 80, which features works by Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Amedeo Modigliani. The works in this gallery show the transition of Paris-based artists from Impressionism to new styles, as the late 19th century gave way to the early 20th.
We admit we’re suckers for Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. Looking at A la Bastille from 1888 or A Corner of the Moulin de la Galette from 1892, even us unsophisticates [sic] can tell it’s Belle Époque Paris.
Lautrec’s use of color and choice of subject matter (the nightclubs of Paris are a common theme) align with those of Impressionism, but he used longer brush strokes and thinned oil paint, giving his works a different quality. Like Cézanne in his later years, Lautrec wasn’t afraid to use unnatural colors for portraits – witness the blue-green hair and skin in Lady with a Dog.
The two works here by Amedeo Modigliani are Chaim Soutine from 1917 and Madame Amédée (Woman with Cigarette) from 1918. Modigliani was influenced by both Cézanne and Lautrec, so this is the right gallery to introduce his work. However, Modigliani is most famous for his nudes (two are in Gallery 81), whose frank representations caused the police to shut down their exhibition in 1918. Modigliani was also a renowned sculptor, and his Head of a Woman (Ground floor, Gallery 41) is part of one of our favorite exhibits downstairs.
Unofficial Tip: Chaim Soutine, the subject of one of Modigliani’s portraits here, was a friend and fellow painter. One of his works is also on display in this gallery.
Three Picasso works are also in Gallery 80. One is Le Gourmet, from 1901, the beginning of Picasso’s “blue period” (roughly 1901 to 1904) in which blue is the primary color for most of his work. And notice the way Picasso purposely painted the table out of perspective in this scene. Over the last 700 years, starting from Gallery 1, we’ve seen artists not use perspective, then experiment with it, try to copy it faithfully, and here with Picasso, throw the convention away.
Another Picasso here is Family of Saltimbanques, a large painting done in 1905, the early part of Picasso’s career. In it you can see more of Picasso’s experimentation with shapes and backgrounds. The subject matter – circus performers – continues the theme we’ve seen for the last few galleries. The bleak, desert-like background here suggests these people are not regarded highly.
Like Cézanne, Picasso uses a harlequin’s costume for its geometric patterns (Picasso also painted himself as the harlequin), and notice how the shape of the figures forms a triangle on its side, pointing to the right. It’s similar to the technique da Vinci and Raphael used to compose their subjects, but rotated 90 degrees.
Start in Gallery 2, which is given over to sculptures by Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor most active in the early 20th century. At the entrance to the room is The Thinker, probably the most known of Rodin’s works. Although it’s shown here by itself, The Thinker was designed to be only one part of a huge entrance mural for Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts, and depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno. The mural was never completed. Several of Rodin’s designs for individual figures still survive, however, including The Kiss (Le Baiser) here.
More than fifty versions of The Thinker exist in various sizes around the world; the one displayed here was the third one made, from Rodin’s original model, and while the artist was alive.
Rodin’s reputation today is as one of the 20th century’s most important sculptors. And while he was fortunate to have heard this in his lifetime, his earliest work was criticized and controversial. The piece in question is The Age of Bronze, at the far end of Gallery 2, from 1875-1876. It’s a life-size male nude, first done in plaster (in Gallery 3), then in bronze. When it was exhibited in 1877 it scandalized Paris because of its contemporary aesthetic; at the time, nude models were generally seen in works of mythological or historical scenes.
The accuracy of the representation also brought charges that Rodin had made the sculpture by casting a model in plaster, essentially faking the skill needed to make the work. Rodin eventually had a photographer take side-by-side images of his model and the sculpture to prove the work couldn’t have been made from a cast. The plaster version on display in Gallery 3 is one of the earliest made.
Also in Gallery 2 are three Edgar Degas studies for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and the work itself, in the center of the room. Like The Age of Bronze, the use of a contemporary subject (and a working-class girl at that) was novel for Parisians of the time. The other interesting thing about these works is that they’re made of colored beeswax designed to look like bronze. Beeswax was cheaper and easier to work with, allowing Degas to achieve the same look as bronze, faster.
Speaking of Degas sculpture, we’re fans of his equestrian models in Gallery 4. Also done in beeswax, these show horses and riders in various stages of movement. They’re remarkable because of Degas’ ability to capture one instant’s strain of muscles and beat of hooves. If they’re not already on an Hermès scarf somewhere, they should be.
Gallery 4 also has three Monet paintings (The Seine at Giverny from 1897, Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers from 1880, and Morning Haze from 1888) and two Renoirs (Girl with a Basket of Oranges and Girl with a Basket of Fish, from 1889.
Next, make your way to Gallery 39, featuring mid-20th century American artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, and Alexander Calder.
Pollock and Rothko were part of the abstract expressionist movement in post-World War II New York. Because we can’t hope to understand it (and think the definition as much a Rorschach test as the art itself), we won’t attempt to describe the movement other than to say it rejected most of the last couple thousand years of artistic convention and progress. There are no recognizable people, places, or things to be found here. This said, Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) is undeniably art, pretty, and makes us feel good. (The artistic among you are screaming “That’s the whole point!” right now. We can tell.)
We’re also fans of Rothko’s “multiform” work, two examples of which are here: an untitled work from 1955, and No. 1, from 1961. The untitled work is characteristic of the late stage of Rothko’s career, utilizing vertical blocks of contrasting color (here red, black, and white). Also, these paintings are huge – fifty square feet or more - on purpose. Rothko pointed out that with small paintings, the viewer is acutely aware of being an outside observer to the scene. In contrast, Rothko wanted his viewers to feel like they were inside the art, often suggesting they get within a couple of feet to better experience the art. (The guards here will allow you to stand that close if you’re cool and froody.)
If you’re ever in a museum and see bits of sheet metal in primary colors all hanging together from the ceiling, chances are it’s an Alexander Calder mobile. There’s one here, and many more (including his 920-pound, 76-foot-long design created especially for the National Gallery) in the East Building atrium, when it reopens.
Head to Gallery 41 next. Yes, there are a couple of Picassos hanging here (Pedro Mañach and the collage Guitar), a Mondrian (Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black), and a nice portrait by Henri Matisse (La Coiffure), but the theme you want to recognize here is that most of the room is given to works that represent the human head in different styles. There’s the Matisse painting, then Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Two Nudes and Nude Figure, both from 1907. Those are examples of Expressionism, in which the artists tried to convey feeling and emotion instead of a faithful representation of reality.
There’s also Joan Miró’s somewhat less abstract Head of a Catalan Peasant painting from 1924. But the sculptures make up the best part of the theme, showcasing the same idea in different styles from the early 20th century:
Matisse’s Figure decorative from 1908, perhaps in the style of Fauvism, which (like Impressionism) valued form over strictly realistic representation Picasso’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) from 1909, a kind of 3-D cubism Modigliani’s Head of a Woman from 1910-11, in the modernist style Kirchner’s Head of a Woman from 1913, an expressionist take
What is Matisse’s Pot of Geraniums doing in this room? We’re not sure, but the French are an inscrutable people, their artists more so. Just go with it.
End your tour of the West Building with a walk through Gallery 42, showing Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, covering the years 1700 to 1830. These years cover the William and Mary; Queen Anne; Chippendale; Federal; and Empire styles. If your group includes anyone who’s done some work-working, the pieces and craftsmen represented here will be familiar to them. Don’t miss the Philadelphia high chest, the Newport block-and-case desk, or the Willard tall-case clock.
The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden sits just west of the Gallery’s main building, and just east of the Smithsonian Museum of natural History. It contains almost two dozen large modern and contemporary works, situated around a central fountain that doubles as an ice rink (from mid-November through mid-March).
While most works are indeed sculpture, art forms from mosaics to industrial design are also represented, covering the years from 1902 to the present. Going clockwise from the corner of Constitution avenue and 9th avenue, here are the highlights:
Marc Chagall, Orphée (1969) This mammoth 170-square-foot mural or glass tile loosely depicts the legend of the Greek artist Orpheus, who was said to entrance all living things with his music. Look closely and you may see references to Chagall’s emigration to the United States in the early 1940s.
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1998) It's a giant, colorful, circular eraser, almost 20 feet tall. Sure, if you’re an art critic, it’s easy to point out that making small everyday objects big is a straightforward way around not having any other ideas. On the other hand, the tilt of the rubber wheel and spread of the eraser’s blue “fingers” suggests a lightness of movement that belies its 5-ton weight. We love it. Other examples are in Seattle and Las Vegas.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider (1996) In our review of Ms. Bourgeois’ work at the Hirshhorn, we mention that she’s also known for a series of bronze sculpture depicting giant spiders. Here’s one of them, and it’s exactly as terrifying as you imagine. It’s got to be extra scary after dark, but ahhh, we’re busy that night. Let us know if you happen to walk by it.
Tony Smith, Wandering Rocks (1967) A series of squat, three-dimensional shapes that represent rocks, this is one of five such installations around the world. The interesting thing about the installations is that Smith apparently never said how the pieces are supposed to be arranged relative to each other, instead leaving the decision up to the curators. That makes the “wandering” part of the title appropriate.
Mark di Suvero, Aurora (1992) di Suvero has another large outdoor sculpture over at the Hirshhorn—Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore)—done 25 years earlier than Aurora, and it’s nice to be able to compare both of these within a short walk. Aurora’s steel beams and curves are bound to a dense central mass, and all of the steel has been left unpainted to rust. In contrast, Are Years What is light, open, and bright red. They both work, but in different ways, and that’s a good example of how an artist can use material and void together.
David Smith, Cubi XI (1963) When the singularity occurs and our robotic overlords have taken over, mankind’s last collective thought might be “these robot bodies look familiar.” So if you see Cubi XI, you can at least go out knowing where you’ve seen them before. Smith has a second sculpture here—Cubi XXVI—although it’s more evocative of di Suvero’s Are Years What over at the Hirshhorn than Smith’s Cubi XI.
Alexander Calder, Cheval Rouge (Red Horse) (1974) Calder is better known for his mobiles, but this sculpture, an abstract representation of a horse (or horses), is great, capturing the flowing curves of an equine body, plus the rounded projection of a horse’s chest and neck.
Roy Lichtenstein, House I (1998) House I is a mesmerizing case study on the use of perspective. It’s a set of flat, two-dimensional panels, painted to look like a three-dimensional home. You’ll find yourself walking past it at different angles just to see how the effects are done. Kids love it.
Roxy Paine, Graft (2008) Graft is a concrete and stainless steel, life-size tree that’s positively captivating in the right light. The work’s title is a play on the word’s definitions, which include splicing part of one tree on to another, so that they both grow together, and corruption, which we’ve heard happened once in Wwashington, D.C.
Hector Guimard, An Entrance to the Paris Métropolitain (1902) Guimard designed the entrances for Paris’s then-new subway system in 1900, and to say that the style caught on is an understatement. Done in the art nouveau style, more than 80 of them still exist today (and they’re protected national treasures). The few that have been removed due to wear have been snapped up and restored by collectors and museums as iconic examples of France’s belle epoque aesthetic.