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    Galleries 1-29: Raphael, da Vinci, Titian

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.

Other Lands at National Gallery of Art