Washington D.C – Part 2: Art Galleries

Having spent the morning learning of the politics of America and it’s legislative feats, i decided to turn my attention to the contemplative, creative and abstract at the National Gallery of Art! Open to the public free of charge, the museum was established in 1937 for the people of the United States of America by a joint resolution of the United States Congress, with funds for construction and a substantial art collection donated by Andrew W. Mellon.

The mission of the National Gallery of Art is

... to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art, at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.

Two buildings comprise the museum: the classically designed West Building (1941) and the modern East Building (1978) linked by a spacious underground passage.

My afternoon was spent exploring the Eastern Building with it’s vast collection of Modern and Contemporary Art and some great exhibitions.

I started with “Small French Paintings” and the name does little to suggest the beauty and quality of these French impressionist and postimpressionist paintings. As well as admiring the sweet little paintings of Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Corot, Manet and others, i was particulalry taken by the work of Edouard Vuillard, yet another artist who’d i’d never before known of.

Another exhibition was “In the Tower: Mark Rothko“. Held, as the name suggests, up in one of the galleries 2 towers. In the separated, minimalist space, it offers a rare look at the black-on-black paintings that Rothko made in 1964 in connection with his work on a chapel for the Menil Collection in Houston.

It’s an extremely peaceful place to sit and ponder and as you stare at them, you realize that there are in-fact very subtle distinctions with different colour and tonal combinations on each canvas

In an adjoining room there were also earlier paintings and an informative video that detail Rothko’s path to abstraction. I always love seeing the progression of an artist and that insight into their processes

The blockbuster’ show when i visited was Edvard Muchs disturbing “Master Prints“. Munch (best known for his work :The scream) is renowned for his haunting portrayals of love, alienation, jealousy, and death—universal human experiences that he filtered through events in his own life. By manipulating color, line, texture, and pictorial details, he reworked these images in multiple print variations, continually renewing their power to express his artistic goals.

I continued on to explore the collections permanent works which is of an incredible quality

until i went through a space age tunnel which adjoins to the West Building. Unfortunately it was closing time but

the next morning, it was my very first destination!

The gallery is arguable most famous for owning the only painting by Leonardo Divinci in the America’s, entitled “Ginevra de’ Benci”

but personally i think there are much grander paintings in the collections, like those exhibited in the “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection” exhibition. Chester Dale‘s bequest to the National Gallery of Art in 1962 included a generous endowment as well as one of America’s most important collections of French painting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This special exhibition, the first in 45 years to explore the extraordinary legacy left to the nation by this passionate collector, features some 83 of his finest French and American paintings.

Among the masterpieces on view are the paintings of Renoir, Cassatt, Manet, Picasso, George Bellows, Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Monet. Can you imagine having all of those in your own private collection?!

After going around the Chester Dale exhibition several times, I wandered on and came to a room of Degas’s dancing sculptures


The Thinker!

Created by the masterful hands of Auguste Rodin, it depicts a man in sober meditation battling with a powerful internal struggle and is often used to represent philosophy.

It’s a extremely powerful and moving work of art when you stand before it.

Whilst the original “Thinker” resides in Paris, the one here is one of the twenty bronze casts of the sculpture displayed in museums around the world (i’d seen another not long ago in the Met!).

Feeling equally art-fatigued and famished, I had a pleasant break and bite to eat at the Garden Café Français, which is a temporary feature of the Gallery in honour of the Chester Dale exhibition.

i wandered through some of the other rooms but have left many for a future visit! Leaving the National Gallery i made my way along the mall, past the Smithsonian Castle

and to the Freer Gallery, which came highly recommended by one of my hosts. Along with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, it forms the Smithsonian Institution’s national museums of Asian art. The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, who gave his collections to the United States and also the funds to help construct a building for their display.

The Freer houses 25,518 objects spanning 6,000 years of history, including but not limited to ancient Egyptian stone sculpture and wooden objects, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, Chinese paintings and ceramics, Korean pottery and porcelain, Japanese Byōbu, Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture. Collections span from the Neolithic to modern eras.

For many visitors, myself included, it is initially confusing as to why, in this Asian oriented gallery, the work of American artist James Whistler is also prominently displayed.

This is because it was after meeting James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an American artist influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics, that Freer began to expand his collections to include Asian art! Despite this pursuit, Freer maintained his interest in American art, particularly in Whistler, amassing a collection of over 1,300 works by this artist, which is considered the world’s finest.

One of the most well-known exhibits at the Freer is the Peacock Room, an opulent London dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77. The room was designed for British shipping magnate F.R. Leyland and is lavishly decorated with green and gold peacock motifs. Purchased by Freer in 1904 and installed in the Freer Gallery after his death, the Peacock Room is on permanent display.

Formally titled “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room” it is Whistler’s masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. The centerpiece is Whistler’s painting of The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

I then went through and saw the serene Chinese and Japanese works whose styles greatly inspired Whistler

And that rounded of my art-orientated explorations in D.C! Despite there being many other art galleries to see i had to make sure that i saw some of DC’s equally renowned monuments, memorials and museums!


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