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From Duccio to Vermeer

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Duccio, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, 1308/1311

On Wednesday last week, Gail and I took the train down to Washington from New York. I discussed our first DC evening in my last post, where I also explained that I was there on business Thursday and Friday at the National Science Foundation, so I wasn’t anticipating getting to do very much in DC. However, some good fortune came my way when we managed to make good progress on our work Thursday. We thought we might be done by mid morning Friday, or noon at the latest. As it turned out, we didn’t finish until 12:45 Friday afternoon, after which I had lunch with my old friend Zongzhu, who is on leave at NSF. I already knew the one place I planned to go if I had free time — the National Gallery of Art — and I knew they were open until 5:00, so I figured I could both see Zongzhu and get over there. Gail was spending the afternoon with her cousin’s daughter Liz (yes, I know, that makes Liz a cousin too), who is in law school at Georgetown. I could eat with Zongzhu, get on the Metro orange line at the Ballston stop in Arlington, get off at Metro Center, walk the two blocks back to the Willard, drop my briefcase, and then walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the gallery.

That was my plan anyway, and it’s pretty much what I did. I wanted to be at the hotel by 2:30 and the gallery by 3:00. The only thing that went wrong is that as I stood at the hotel elevators on the 9th floor, waiting to go down and walk to the gallery, I heard two women talking on a rising elevator, and when its doors opened, off walked Gail and Liz. I could have just passed them without a word and descended, but instead I headed back to the hotel room with them and we caught up on what we were doing. They had walked for hours, gone up and down the Washington Monument, and were taking a break prior to going back out for a late lunch and a visit to Liz’s apartment. I knew Gail would ordinarily have wished to go to the gallery too, especially considering that we hadn’t been there since 1988, but she was there to spend time with Liz, so we split up again and I headed out.

It was, by the way, pretty cold. Mid 20s or so. I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing assorted important buildings along the way, such as the Justice Department headquarters and the National Archives. If I had more time, I would have gone into the Archives to make sure the constitution was still there, but art beckoned. I knew exactly what I wanted to do — start with the oldest paintings of the permanent collection, Italian art of the 13th century, take my time, and get as far as I could. I arrived at the north entrance on the lower level around 3:15, checked my coat (despite the cold, I had bundled up too much, and was way too hot when I arrived), grabbed a map of the galleries, and headed up to the first floor.

I had just enough time, as it turned out, to start in room 1 and finish in rooms 50ABC. As you can see, this means I started with 13th century Italian art; went through later Italian, Spanish, and French art; then Netherlandish and German; and finally 17th century Dutch and Flemish. In other words, Duccio to Vermeer. I was disappointed not to get to the British or American, but I didn’t want to rush, and I saw so many treasures as it was. Plus, I wanted to continue our post-Italy theme of revisiting museums (The Louvre, The Met, now The National Gallery) with a focus on their Italian art, in order to complement and add to all that we saw and learned in Italy in November. I must say, it was a thrill to have so many rooms virtually to myself, with at most one or two others sharing some of the rooms at any given time. Often, I was by myself.

It all starts with a bang, in gallery 1, with two Duccios and a Giotto. I included a picture of the Giotto in an earlier post. The Duccio pictured at the top of this post, as described at the gallery website, “was one of the rear panels of Duccio’s magnificent Maestà in Siena cathedral. With more than fifty individual scenes, the altarpiece was about fourteen feet wide and towered to gabled pinnacles some seventeen feet over the main altar. It was installed in June 1311 after a triumphant procession through the streets of Siena. Priests, city officials, and citizens were followed by women and children ringing bells for joy. Shops were closed all day and alms were given to the poor. Completed in less than three years, the Maestà was a huge undertaking for which Duccio received 3,000 gold florins—more than any artist had ever commanded. Nevertheless, Duccio, like all artists of his time, was regarded as a craftsman and was often called on to paint ceiling coffers, parade shields, and the like. Not until the middle and later fourteenth century did the status of artists rise.”

My visit ended with a bang too, thanks to the three Vermeers in gallery 50A. Not surprisingly, given Vermeer’s immense popularity, this tiny gallery was the most crowded of the ones I visited. I had to wait for people to move on, but ultimately I had the room to myself.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

I never get to have enough time in the National Gallery. I suppose I need to spend a week in DC some time, so I can go to the gallery a little bit every morning and have the afternoons free to go to other museums. Some day. Or rather, some week.

Categories: Art, Travel

The View out our Window

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

[Photo from Washington Monument website

After our short visit to New York last week, parts of which I wrote about here and here, we took Amtrak’s Acela down to Washington on Wednesday afternoon (nine days ago), arriving around 5:00 PM. We haven’t been to Washington all that many times. Our last family visit was in August 1996, as part of our train trip across the country, when we made stops in Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, then flying home after a visit to my family. Our time in DC on that trip was limited, as we had to get up to Baltimore to see the Orioles at Camden Yards and the Cézanne exhibit at the Philadephia Museum of Art.

This time, I had business on Thursday and Friday at the National Science Foundation, so I wasn’t expecting to see much of anything. Gail, in contrast, would be free to see some sights. Thus, I had to enjoy what limited sense of place I could get. It was thus a piece of good fortune that when we checked into our hotel, we were brought up to a room facing directly out on the Washington Monument. That would give me plenty sense of place. The Willard is where we stay when we’re in DC. We stumbled on it in 1988, near the end of my sabbatical year in Princeton, when we were planning a three-day trip down to DC. Established in 1816, it has had a rich history, but it closed in 1968. As part of the re-development of Pennsylvania Avenue, it was renovated, with the addition of an office building, and re-opened in 1986. We happily stayed there two years later, and again in 1996. We didn’t have to think too hard to decide to stay there again.

The Willard sits right where Pennsylvania Avenue, as it runs northwest from the Capitol to the White House, converges with and switches places with E Street, at their intersection with 14th. Another block west, on the far side of 15th Street, is the Treasury Building, and just west of that is the White House. The front of the building faces south-southwest, looking right out at the Washington Monument, maybe a quarter mile away. Most of the building runs to the north, towards F Street, with just a narrow facade facing south, and that’s the facade that our room was on, nine floors up. As a result, we could look straight at the monument, and the Potomac and Arlington beyond. To the right was a good view of the Lincoln Memorial. We could catch the barest of glimpses of the Treasury Building way to the right, with the White House hidden beyond, and the view of the Capitol straight to the left hidden as well.

I had work to do the night we arrived, so I suggested we take a walk around the neighborhood first before settling in for room service dinner and my work. We headed out the back door onto F Street, west to the Treasury, north and west around the Treasury, and over to the north side of the White House, from which Gail took the photo below. (The time on the photo, of course, is PST, not EST.) I haven’t mentioned yet that this was the evening of the State of the Union Address, leading us to imagine President Obama inside making his final preparations.

Between our hotel on 14th and Treasury on the far side of 15th is the W Hotel between 14th and 15th. On our way back, we stopped in there, entering on the west side from 15th, so we could be sure we knew where J&G Steakhouse was, as we were to eat dinner there the next night with my old friend Sim and his wife Martha. (More on that in a separate post.) Then, back to our hotel room, where we ordered dinner, I got to work, and while eating, we enjoyed our wonderful view of the Washington Monument.

Around 8:24 PM, just after we finished eating, things got a bit wild out there. Sirens and sirens and more sirens. Gail looked out, called me over, and I saw motorcycles, police cars, vans, limos, vans, police cars, motorcycles, maybe 25 or 30 vehicles in all. It took just a moment to realize that this was the presidential motorcade, making its way from the White House to the Capitol for the State of the Union address. I realize residents get used to this sort of thing, but we couldn’t help being excited by the spectacle, and the realization that the address wasn’t just some distant event we would watch on TV. Rather, it was all but taking place in front of our eyes. Of course, it seems a little crazy that traffic has to stop every time the president wants to wander over to the Capitol to have a chat. One might wish for a simpler time, when the president could simply stroll over, ride a horse, take a bike, take the Metro. Still, it was fun to see. Shortly thereafter, Gail watched the SOTU address while I did my homework for NSF. And then we got to watch the motorcade return.

Now we’re spoiled. Next time we will need to insist on a room in the front.

Categories: Travel

Bronzino at the Met

February 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Agnolo Bronzino, Head of a Curly-Haired Child Looking Up to the Right, ca. 1527

Having written (here and here and here) about our trip to Dallas two weeks ago, I now turn to last week’s trip through Washington and Delaware to New York and back to Washington.

I’ve already written about our arrival by Amtrak in New York two Monday nights ago and our subsequent dinner at Paola’s Restaurant. Joel flew in from Seattle overnight that night, arriving in our hotel room around 6:30 Tuesday morning. In the late morning, we headed over to see my parents. A few hours later, we left them and wandered over to the Met. Our time there was limited, since we were going to meet up with my cousin John (and later Joan too) back at our hotel, so we headed right away to what struck us as the most interesting of the current exhibitions, The Drawings of Bronzino. As described at the website, the “exhibition is the first ever dedicated to Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572), and will present nearly all the known drawings by, or attributed to, this leading Italian Mannerist artist, who was active primarily in Florence. A painter, draftsman, academician, and enormously witty poet, Bronzino became famous as the court artist to the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his beautiful wife, the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo. This monographic exhibition will contain approximately 60 drawings from European and North-American collections, many of which have never before been on public view.”

We had seen lots of Bronzino’s work during our trip to Italy in November. And since leaving Italy, we have continued to see lots of Italian art, if not Bronzino specifically. (There was the Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese show at the Louvre that I wrote about and that we saw immediately after our departure from Italy. We followed that with a walk through the Louvre’s permanent collection of Italian art. Three days later, in New York, as we worked our way back to Seattle, we kept the theme going by walking through the Met’s permanent collection of Italian art. Somehow, with all our travels last month, we managed to miss the temporary Michaelangelo here at the Seattle Art Museum. But, in New York again, there we were, stumbling on yet another show of Italian art.

I could say a few words about the exhibit, but it’s probably better for me simply to refer you to Peter Schjeldahl’s review in last week’s New Yorker. The exhibit is a small one, occupying three rooms, and many of the drawings are small too. Seeing it with a crowd in mid afternoon presents some difficulties. Schjeldahl surely has more useful observations than I do.

After Bronzino, we had time for one more small current exhibition before heading back to the hotel to meet John, Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer. It occupies a single room in the Chinese Decorative Art Galleries. Below is a typical piece, a dish with decoration of dragon and characters (to quote from the catalogue) dating from the Ming dynasty, 16th century. Worth a visit, if you’re in the neighborhood.

Categories: Art, Travel