The government shutdown might have kept us away from the museums in the nation’s capital, but funding was available for a few more days. With no particular exhibit in mind, we waded into the hundreds of thousands of paintings spanning as many years of history.
Our first stop was the National Gallery of Art, singled out for the amazing selection in the cafeteria. We checked our bags, which required passing the portraits of the great 20th Century art collectors Andrew Mellon, Peter Widener and Samuel Kress.
Most of our trips to the National Gallery have focused on American Art, so with stomachs full, we headed to the Dutch paintings. Still lifes and landscapes abound, and there’s always the endearing little dogs in the church interiors. And then there’s Vermeer.
A tour was surrounding Peter Paul Rubens’ Daniel and the Lions and we took it in for a moment, discussing which of the animal’s expressions most resembled our cats.
Once in the American Galleries, the Skater by Gilbert Stuart always stops us in our tracks. It’s one of the few figural paintings from the period that show motion. Such an assured motion too remarkably rendered from memory.
We both stopped, as Sister Wendy once did, at the sight of Winslow Homer’s Right and Left, which depicts two ducks facing a shotgun blast and capturing the moment right before, and right after death.
This was our first trip to the museum since major works from the Corcoran collection were incorporated. These included the monumental and majestic Niagara by Frederick Edwin Church and the enchanting painting of the Florence Griswold House by Willard Metcalf.
Time was limited, so a quick stroll through the European galleries on the way to the Davinci Portrait (stopping to take in two to the La Pena landscapes) and it was time to head to the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
It occurred to me the National Gallery of Art is a near perfect museum. The generously-sized rooms, natural light and symmetrical layout of the West Wing make for an organized, intuitive experience. I am not so sure there is a more satisfying painting experience available (for me to date) as the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Our repeat visit here began with the presidential portraits including the one by Kehinde Wiley of Barrack Obama. A sizeable line had formed for personal photo mementos. A portrait of James Polk bore a resemblance to Mel Gibson.
A self-portrait show awaited us beyond the presidential likenesses. Many were minor works, but they were enough to engage us for another hour or so. We were struck to recognize a large self-portrait by the recently deceased Fritz Scholder which we had seen hanging in a Santa Fe gallery a year earlier.
The one painting that stood out most in my memory from our earlier trip was The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson. Thankfully, it was again on display.
Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas may have its wall of Martin Johnson Head bird paintings, but here there’s an entire wall of Albert Pinkham Ryder paintings, which always hold my attention longer than most others. Most of his works are dark and mysterious, but here a more ordinary landscape with cattle broke the theme.
Up a floor and we found some contemporary works including a luminescent work by David Hockney, Snails Space with Vari-Lites. (We’re not sure why this work by a British artist is here). The space allotted for abstract late 20th Century art and sculpture is limited here and the museum’s strengths are definitely in the realm of representational works on canvas from any time period.
One work that stood out here was Nelson Shank’s glowing portrait of Opera singer Denyce Graves. His name was familiar from the portrait of the four female Supreme Court Justices we saw on the second floor. Nearby was a portrait attracting more attention, Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald.
One criticism we had, particularly in the presidential portraits area, is the labels focus almost exclusively on information about the sitter. We noticed people having negative reactions to portraits of unpopular presidents including Andrew Jackson. It would be nice to have more information at hand about Thomas Sully, the artist. Portraits from the modern era did provide more details, generally including a label on a portrait of Bill Clinton that toted the artist, Chuck Close, had been accused of sexual assault.
The most beautiful part of the museum is the Luce Center. Over-the-top Victorian decor, iron staircases and elegantly tiled floors make this a must see. There are many interesting paintings and objects in the visible storage, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor to spend some time here.
One of the last works we noted was a portrait of the poet Carl Sandburg by William A. Smith. As we look into what promises to be an extended shutdown and an unfortunate period of time when these great building blocks of human civilization are not available to the public, we can take some note from this tale by Sandburg which seems to call out what we miss in a life without art:
I DRANK musty ale at the Illinois Athletic Club with
the millionaire manufacturer of Green River butter
And his face had the shining light of an old-time Quaker,
he spoke of a beautiful daughter, and I knew he had
a peace and a happiness up his sleeve somewhere.
Then I heard Jim Kirch make a speech to the Advertising
Association on the trade resources of South America.
And the way he lighted a three-for-a-nickel stogie and
cocked it at an angle regardless of the manners of
our best people,
I knew he had a clutch on a real happiness even though
some of the reporters on his newspaper say he is
the living double of Jack London’s Sea Wolf.
In the mayor’s office the mayor himself told me he was
happy though it is a hard job to satisfy all the office-
seekers and eat all the dinners he is asked to eat.
Down in Gilpin Place, near Hull House, was a man with
his jaw wrapped for a bad toothache,
And he had it all over the butter millionaire, Jim Kirch
and the mayor when it came to happiness.
He is a maker of accordions and guitars and not only
makes them from start to finish, but plays them
after he makes them.
And he had a guitar of mahogany with a walnut bottom
he offered for seven dollars and a half if I wanted it,
And another just like it, only smaller, for six dollars,
though he never mentioned the price till I asked him,
And he stated the price in a sorry way, as though the
music and the make of an instrument count for a
million times more than the price in money.
I thought he had a real soul and knew a lot about God.
There was light in his eyes of one who has conquered
sorrow in so far as sorrow is conquerable or worth
Anyway he is the only Chicago citizen I was jealous of
He played a dance they play in some parts of Italy
when the harvest of grapes is over and the wine
presses are ready for work.
Featured Image: Immigrants Selling MAGA Hats by Lin Wang