Accessible Art History
Five Must See Masterpieces at the National Gallery of Art
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This week, we are going to travel to Washington, DC and examine five incredible works at the National Gallery of Art. Obviously, there are far more than five masterpieces in this museum, but this is meant to be a “hits list”. Each of these pieces represents a fantastic moment in art history, so keep reading to explore them!
The National Gallery of Art was officially established in 1937, though work began several years earlier. The idea was first conceived by Andrew Mellon, the famous American banker and businessman. He had a large, personal collection and thought that he could use it to form a national museum. Plus, it would provide him with a hefty tax write off!
Mellon’s plan was bolstered by an unexpected move by the Soviet government. In 1930, the treasury of the Soviet Union was nearing a zero balance and it needed an influx of income. So, the decision was made to sell off works held at the Hermitage Museum. This collection had been assembled by centuries of Russian rulers and there were several paintings that Mellon had his eye on. In all, he was able to acquire 21 paintings to help bolster the fledgling National Gallery’s collection.
On March 24, 1937, which also happened to be Mellon’s birthday, an Act of Congress officially set up the National Gallery of Art. The United States government was given both the art collection and the funds set aside for the building. Though, it is important to note that Mellon wasn’t just being magnanimous. His donation helped prevent tax evasion charges from being filed against him!
Today, the National Gallery of Art has three sections. The first is the original, West building. It has a beautiful, Neoclassical design that matches its location. In the 1970’s, famed architect I.M. Pei designed a more modern expansion, called the East building. Finally, in 1999, the 6.1 acre Sculpture garden was opened. All together, the three elements of the National Gallery of Art make it the 12th largest museum in the world. 4.4 million people visit it each year, making it the 8th most visited museum.
One of the biggest draws of the National Gallery of Art is the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on North American soil. This portrait of a young woman was painted between 1474-1478. Art historians have identified her as Ginerva de’Benci, a young Florentine noblewoman. This work was purchased by the National Gallery from the Liechtenstein Royal Family for the insane (in 1967) sum of $5 million.
Ginerva is most famous for her cool, almost aloof look. Unlike da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa, there is no warmth in her expression. She regards the viewer with little interest and her mouth is tight. Although the bottom third of the painting has been cut off, it can be assumed that her hands would have been shown folded at the bottom of the frame.
There are a few ways that viewers can identify Ginevra as a noblewoman. Firstly, her hair is finely curled and styled. Secondly, her clothes, while simple in design, are clearly well made. Lastly, is the portrait itself. It was common in Florence during the 15th century to have portraits made of young women on the occasion of her marriage. Through historical records, it has been discovered that Ginerva was married around the time the work is dated to, at the age of 16.
A small, fun fact about this work is the pun that da Vinci included in the background. Behind the sitter, is a juniper bush. Not only is this a symbol of feminine virtue, but the word “juniper” is a play on Ginerva’s name. This small, but fun detail reminds us of da Vinci’s more playful side. This contrasts with Ginerva’s more stern and stoic attitude.
The next work on this list is this Annunciation scene by the great Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck. Painted around 1436, this piece was originally the left side of a triptych, but is now an independent canvas work. The story of the Annunciation comes from the Gospel of Luke when the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she is to bear the Son of God. She is inside the Jewish temple and devoutly reading the Book of Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is also present, it is symbolized by the dove flying in on the beam of light.
The major theme of this work is the transition between the old and the new. There is a clear distinction between light and dark. The Romanesque architecture gradually gives way to the more “modern” Gothic style. Finally, if the viewer looks close enough, there are small panels with triumphal scenes from the Old Testament. They include David and Goliath and Samson and the Philistine temple.
For art historians, one of the most remarkable aspects of this piece is the way that van Eyck portrayed the figures of Mary and Gabriel. They are overly large, way too big for the space that they are in. There is a weight, almost heftiness about them, which seems unusual for such heavenly figures. Most of this comes from the rich, intricately woven fabric that makes up their clothing. Every detail of this piece has a purpose.
Portrait of a Lady
Around 1460, Rogier van der Weyden painted this portrait of an unidentified woman. However, like the one of Ginerva de’Benci, there are clues that identify her as a member of the noble class. Her clothes are clearly made from fine cloth and by an expert seamstress. Her hair line has been plucked to be quite a bit higher than it would be naturally. This was the height of fashion during the 15th century, especially in the Netherlands. Finally, the sitter is wearing a few, elaborate, rings on her fingers. Jewelry was almost always reserved solely for the upper classes of society.
This work is often described as a revolution in portraiture. This is because it has the inkling of individuality. Yes, the sitter is still made up to be the ideal of Gothic beauty. With her narrow build, previously mentioned high hairline and light brows, and pale skin, she does fit the mold. However, her headdress is a different story. Traditionally, these were worn to preserve modesty. But, this one frames the sitter’s face and draws attention to it. The thin, gossamer material does little to hide her face from the viewer.
Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight
Monet is one of the most beloved artists in the history of art. While he is most famous for his paintings of waterlilies, his series on the Rouen cathedral highlights his dedication to the study of impression and light. Working in 1894, Monet would go to the cathedral at different times of day to see how the light would affect his perception of the facade. This particular piece was created during the day.
This work truly captures the way that light plays with the viewer’s impression of a specific scene. Monet used soft pastel tones to capture the day time light. His brush strokes mimic the stone work on the facade. He did include a few figures, but they only provide scale to show just how large the cathedral is. There are not many shadows, given the time of the day that the work was created, but there are a few in the doorway.
By working on the same subject at different times, Monet helped to change the perception of how light works. Although artists understood, for centuries, how lighting would affect their work, Monet was one of the first to use light as a medium.
Self Portrait - Judith Leyster
During the Dutch Golden Age, there were many artists vying for attention and work. This particular work was actually attributed to Frans Hals until 1949, when the National Gallery of Art acquired it. But, this self portrait was actually painted by Judith Leyster around 1633. Leyster shows herself in the middle of creating a work, with a large smile on her face. Not only was she a talented painter, but she was the first woman to be admitted to the St. Luke Guild.
As jovial as this scene is, it most likely did not take place in real life. Firstly, Judith is wearing an elaborate outfit. This was most likely her nicest outfit and it is doubtful that she would have risked ruining it with spilled oil paints. In addition, the figure on the canvas has not been able to be matched to any known works of Leyster’s.
This painting has an intimate air to it. Leyster turns around, as if the viewer has just entered the studio. They are close to her, almost as if she is inviting them to look at what she is working on. This painting breaks down the wall between viewer and creator.
The National Gallery of Art has a truly incredible collection. This is quite a feat because, unlike other museums around the world, America did not have a royal collection to form a foundation from. But, thanks to Andrew Mellon and his generosity, the country has a space that can rival many. These are only five pieces of this collection, so if you’re in Washington DC, stop by and see them all!
Sources and Images
Main facade of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Mellon, 1921. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo da Vinci - Ginevra de' Benci. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Jan van Eyck - The Annunciation. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of a Lady - Rogier van der Weyden. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight - Claude Monet. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Self-Portrait - Judith Leyster Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons