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National Gallery of Art (Washington DC, USA)

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4th and Constitution Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20565

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      29.01.2001 03:09
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      There are three parts to the American National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and between the three of them, given the enormous collection of art on display, you could easily spend a whole day here. The buildings are located at the east end of the Mall in Washington, and like all museums and galleries in the city, admission is free of charge. The three parts of the National Gallery are; the West Building, containing the gallery's collection of pre-20th century art; the East Building, containing the gallery's modern and contemporary art; and the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. The West and East Buildings are on either side of 4th Street, and are connected by an underground travellator. The Sculpture Garden is to the west of the West Building, between 7th and 9th street, in front of the National Archives Building. THE WEST BUILDING Entering the West Building from the main entrance on the Mall, you walk into the rotunda, with its beautiful central fountain. However, probably the first thing you'll notice, especially in winter, is the incredible humidity in the place. Presumably this is to help preserve the gallery's collection, but it does mean that you end up having to strip off as you tour the gallery. From the rotunda, heading left takes you into the rooms holding the gallery's oldest art, beginning with 13th century Italian art. The highlight of this section is the only Da Vinci painting in America, of a Florentine woman named Ginevra de' Benci, painted on a wooden board, with a still life painted on the reverse. The Italian art galleries include art by Boticelli, Raphael, and Venetian artists including Titian, Tintoretto and Canaletto. From the 16th century Italian art galleries, the next galleries include French, Spanish and Italian art from the 17th and 18th centuries. Artists included in these galleries include Poussin, Murillo, and there's a gallery devoted to the work of El Greco. <
      br> The next galleries consist of 15th and 16th century Netherlandish (or Dutch, as you and I might say) and German art. Highlights include a painting by Albrecht Durer of the 'Madonna and Child' with a picture of 'Lot and His Daughters' on the reverse. There is a single work by Heironymus Bosch, 'Death and the Miser', as well as several works by Jan Gossaert. The final galleries in this wing of the gallery consist of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting. It's also interesting that these galleries are much more handsomely decorated, with wood panelled walls, as opposed to the plain monochrome walls of earlier rooms. The first rooms in this area are devoted to works by Rubens and van Dyck, with impressive collections of work by both artists. My favourite was Rubens' painting of 'Daniel in the Lions' Den'. Other artists featured in these galleries include Frans Hals and Aelbert Cuyp. There are also two of the world's thirty-six remaining paintings by Johannes Vermeer on display here; 'Woman Holding a Balance' and 'A Lady Writing'. Another room is devoted to Rembrandt and his workshop, and includes one of his famous self portraits, and the superb 'Man in Oriental Costume'. In the east wing of the West Building, galleries are given over to 18th and 19th century paintings, beginning with 18th century Spanish and French art, through British and American art, to 19th century French art. The Spanish works on display here consist of a good collection of portraits by Goya. The 18th century French galleries include paintings by Chardin, Houdon and Fragonard. The British art on display represents a good cross-section of 18th and 19th century British painting, including a painting of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable, and a selection of landscapes by Turner. There are several portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds too. The American galleries c
      onsist of an excellent collection of 18th and 19th century paintings. I must confess I hadn't heard of anywhere near as many of the American artists on display as I had the British artists, but there were good collections of paintings by John Copley and John Singer Sargent, as well as one painting by James McNeill Whistler. One of the galleries contains the Shaw Memorial, a plaster memorial created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to commemorate one of the African-American units that fought in the American Civil War. Another gallery contains portraits of the first five American presidents by artist Gilbert Stuart. The 19th century "French" art galleries constitute an outstanding collection of paintings, though the gallery's decision to label these galleries as the work of French artists is dubious at best. Artists on display here include Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, and Manet. There's a gallery filled with the work of Claude Monet, including two of his impressive Rouen Cathedral paintings, with different colouration reflecting the different times of the day at which they were painted. Some of the galleries on the main floor of the east wing of the West Building were given over to a temporary special exhibition when I visited the gallery in early 2001. The exhibition was entitled 'Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century' and consisted of 140 of the gallery's most recent acquisitions, including works by Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Matisse and Alexander Calder. On the lower, Ground Floor, level of the West Building, accessible at the west and east ends of the building, or from the north side, are some small exhibitions of photography, along with prints and drawings. THE EAST BUILDING The East Building is a much more modern building than the west, and is an odd triangular shape. Entering from the basement level travellator from the West Bui
      lding leads directly into the heart of the East Building, just a few yards from the gallery's first big display area. The East Building holds a wide variety of 20th century works, seemingly with little thought given to how to arrange the art. Certainly, the work isn't displayed thematically or chronologically. Nonetheless, the arrangement seems to work, and walking around the galleries is a pleasant enough experience. There is an interesting collection of works in the basement gallery. Several pieces of pop art by Roy Lichtenstein are on show, including his series of five images of 'Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Different Times of The Day)' nicely echoing Monet's paintings of the same building, shown from the same angle. There are two works by German artist Anselm Kiefer, and several works by Jasper Johns including 'Target' and 'Field Painting'. There is also one of Jackson Pollock's best known drip paintings, 'Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)', as well as several large virtually monochrome canvasses by Mark Rothko. Several Warhol prints are also on display, along with several sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. One area contains all fourteen of Barnett Newman's uninspired monochromatic 'Stations of the Cross' paintings, and a small room off the main gallery is filled with Alexander Calder's wire sculptures. The only other major gallery space in the East Building is on the Upper Level, and includes several 'blue period' paintings by Pablo Picasso, along with works by Piet Mondrian, Joan Miro, Kandinsky, Jean Arp and Braque. There are also several sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, and a painting by Rene Magritte. There is a small exhibition space at the top of the south tower of the East Building, and some temporary exhibition space on the Mezzanine and Upper Levels. When I visited the gallery, these latter spaces were taken up by a large exhibition of Art Nouveau works. The
      main atrium contains several large sculptures, including an enormous sculpture by Alexander Calder. There's not a lot of exhibition space in the East Building, compared to the West, but the individual pieces on display have been well selected, and include some superb works by some excellent modern artists. There's relatively little contemporary art on display, compared to other modern art collections around the world, but it doesn't matter too much. SCULPTURE GARDEN The sculpture garden includes a good collection of sculptures by artists from around the world, including Joan Miro, Sol Lewitt, Louise Bouregois and Alexander Calder. There is a café and toilets in the pavilion in the sculpture garden too. From November to March each year, an ice skating rink is constructed on the site of the fountain in the middle of the sculpture garden, which is open until late each night. OTHER THOUGHTS The National Gallery of Art could conceivably take a whole day to tour including all the temporary exhibitions running in the three parts of the gallery. If you're pressed for time, as I was, then probably the best strategy is to leave out the temporary exhibitions, and try to concentrate on the art periods that you're most interested in seeing. If you're there for longer, there are several cafés in the Gallery – one on the Upper Level of the East Building, one in Concourse connecting the two Buildings, and one on the Ground Floor of the West Building. There are large shops in the basement of the East Building and on the Ground Floor of the West Building. It's also worth mentioning that the gallery has one of the best web-sites of any gallery that I've ever had cause to look up online. At http://www.nga.gov, you can virtually tour most parts of the museum using Quicktime, and look up any of the pictures held by the gallery. Images of virtually all of the art in the gallery are s
      tored online, and via the web-site, you can find out where the art is on display in the gallery, along with details of each piece's provenance, and exhibition history. There are in depth studies of several major paintings in the gallery, such as Pollock's 'Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)' and Vermeer's 'Woman Holding a Balance', as well as pages describing the gallery's architecture. CONCLUSIONS There is a superb and immense collection of works on display here, and the gallery is very well laid out, with exhibition spaces that are not overcrowded. Certainly, when I visited in early 2001, the gallery was virtually empty, and my friend and I often had rooms to ourselves. I imagine that in the Summer the gallery is considerably more crowded, but in the Winter, it's a very enjoyable and restful way to spend the better part of a day.


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