Art in Washington, DC

It was good to be back home after driving through nearly four hours of rain and traffic, returning from several days down in Washington, DC.  During the trip I managed to squeeze in visits to three great museums.

First up, I took a quick stroll through the National Gallery of Art, just off The Mall.  I’ve been there several times in recent years so it has become almost familiar, though it’s still quite a joy to explore.  On this trip, I mostly focused on the east wing of the old (west) building, which houses French Impressionists and American Impressionists and Realists from the late 1800s and early 1900s.  One of the iconic images here is Renoir’s “A Girl with a Watering Can”:

Girl with a Watering Can

From there I headed over (or rather, under) to the newer (east) building, the home of a very fine, compact collection of modern and contemporary art.  All of the major players are represented, with my favorite pieces probably being two Sol LeWitt works:  one is a wall of ink washes in colored bands that make up four squares; the other is a wall drawing in four colors of not-straight lines intersecting with even density (I’m paraphrasing from LeWitt’s descriptive, generative titles).  Both are exciting to look at up close as well as from a distance, each providing a different kind of optical treat.

From the National Gallery of Art, I headed up 8th Street to the National Portrait Gallery (which shares the building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and together they are called “The Donald W Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture”).  I had never been to this space (at least not in adulthood) and so wasn’t sure what to expect.  It’s a great museum and if you’re heading to DC I would highly recommend a visit!

On display in the Smithsonian side of the building was a special exhibition comparing the works of Ansel Adams with Georgia O’Keefe.  I’ve never been that big a fan of O’Keefe, but this show has perhaps changed my mind, as it was full of dynamic, abstracted landscapes which to me are more interesting than her more ubiquitous flower paintings.  The Ansel Adams photographs didn’t fare well in the comparison, as the warm gallery lighting and generally small size of the prints made it tough to enjoy his photos fully.

Upstairs, the Smithsonian has on display a very nice collection of modern and contemporary work, and I found one Oscar Bluemner (one of my favorite artists) tucked away in a room of other early American modernists.

But for me, the star of this visit was the Portrait Gallery.  The space exhibits “the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House”, and it’s really a must-see.  From the familiar George Washington “Lansdowne” portrait by Gilbert Stuart to the rather smarmy and soft-focused Bill Clinton by Nelson Shanks, it’s a real history lesson.  The text panels next to each painting focus more on the presidents than on the artists or the paintings themselves, which I guess makes sense for the general public, but left me wanting to know more about each of the paintings.  It was amazing to see the variety in quality from one painting to the next; from truly magnificent to just short of laughable.

In addition to the Presidents collection, the Portrait Gallery also has many other historical and contemporary portraits in the form of paintings, sculptures, and photographs.  On display now is a show called “The Mask of Lincoln” which includes mostly photographs of honest Abe as well as two “life masks” taken five years apart in 1860 and 1865 (the latter just two months before Lincoln’s assassination).  It’s hard to tire of things Lincoln and I always find seeing those images of him from very early in the history of photography to be quite moving and mesmerizing.  Of the rest of the paintings in the portrait gallery, one that jumped out at me was a Sargent (his paintings always seem to jump out at me), a portrait of Leonard Wood from 1903.  This painting combines perfect color mixing with an absolute minimum of brushstroke to yield a striking rendition in paint.

On Tuesday, I stopped by the Phillips Collection, another gallery/museum that I hadn’t seen before and another one that was well worth the visit.  Reminding me of a more intimate Frick Collection, the space is organized into two buildings, an old mansion with carpeted floors and stuffy decorations and a more modern seeming space with wood floors that feels more like a museum.  Currently, the top floor is showing by-products of a work-in-progress by Jean-Claude and Christo:  “Over The River”.  The exhibition includes photos and drawings of the wrapper duo’s plans to drape massive silvery fabric sheets over a stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado.  It might be fun to visit that when it goes live (I enjoyed “The Gates” in NYC a few years back), but the ephemera in this show (quite a lot of it) is rather a snooze.

The rest of the collection, though, was quite enjoyable.  The Rothko Room holds four Rothko abstracts, with Green and Maroon being the most compelling.  On opposite ends of the floor are a wonderful Matisse and then the incredibly famous Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party.  You always wonder if it’ll be a letdown to see a painting you’ve seen a million times before in reproduction (that’s how I felt about Velazquez’s Las Meninas when I saw it in Spain last year, though that could be due to dreary weather and packed crowds).  Luncheon, however, is a blast to see in person.  Full of color and life, it’s one of those paintings that looks much better in person than it does on paper (where the colors are often way off).

Luncheon of the Boating Party

Finally, the Phillips Collection hosts the odd numbered panels in Jacob Lawrence‘s Migration Series, which I had seen in total in New York a number of years ago, but which are always worth a look (and a read, since the panels come with captions explaining in story-book fashion the migration of African Americans from south to north from 1916-1930).

One of these days I’ll get back to DC and spend some time with the history and politics destinations, but for this trip I was happy to stick to art (the “Newseum” was begging people to visit, but with a $20 admission charge it’s a tough sell).

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