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National Gallery

The Cornell Farm, Edward Hicks, 1848

In the most recent of my posts on our recent trip to Washington, D.C. and environs, I described our visit to Ford’s Theater and Petersen House. (Petersen House is the home across the street where Lincoln was taken after being shot and where he died hours later.) I will conclude the series with this post, which covers our final hours in DC.

From Petersen House, we crossed back to the Theater to wander into the bookstore. As I explained in my previous post, we had not had sufficient time to view the exhibits in the theater’s museum before being ushered upstairs to the theater, but to continue our visit, we would need to get another pair of timed tickets, and we decided to move on. We headed south on 10th Street, across E, and alongside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI monolith, crossing over Pennsylvania Avenue and turning southeast to walk down it in the shade of the Robert Kennedy Justice Department Building. Just a block past it is the National Archives Building, which I had suggested to Gail we might visit, given that we were so close, that one can’t see the Constitution often enough, and that our time was limited. But by the time we got around to Constitution Avenue on its south side so we could enter, we were staring at the National Gallery of Art.

We had a decision to make. On our last visit to DC, in January, when my work ended early on our last day, I returned to the hotel, bundled up for the walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with temperatures in the 20s, and headed off. (See here for my description of the visit.) But having been there so recently, I was willing to go somewhere else. We stood on the corner between the gallery and the archives and I asked Gail her preference. She didn’t hesitate. The gallery. Off we went.

Our first stop was the underground cafeteria between the main building and the East Wing. By the time we returned to the rotunda in the main wing, it was 12:45. In January, I had worked my way through gallery rooms 1-50 (see map below), viewing their permanent collection of Italian, Spanish, French, Netherlands, German, Dutch, and Flemish art from the 13th through 17th centuries. And a magnificent collection it is, from Duccio and Giotto in Room 1 to Vermeer in Room 50. (This was the subject of my From Duccio to Vermeer post.) I thought that this time I should pick up where I left off, with room 52 on the other side of the rotunda, but only after a quick look at rooms 1 and 50 again.


This was a good decision, since rooms 50B and 50C contained an intimate temporary exhibition that I would otherwise have missed, Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age. The show, organized by the National Gallery and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, has the following online description:

In the first exhibition devoted to Dutch landscape artist Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634), scenes of skating, sleigh rides, and outdoor games on frozen canals and waterways bring to life the lively pastimes and day-to-day bustle of the Golden Age. Displayed in the intimate Dutch Cabinet Galleries, some 14 paintings and 16 drawings capture the harsh winters of the period and the activities they made possible. Avercamp—the first artist to specialize in painting winter landscapes that feature people enjoying themselves on the ice—made the “ice scene” a genre in its own right. Within these winter scenes is a social narrative as well: unencumbered by status, all classes formed one community on the ice. Avercamp was also an outstanding draftsman who made individual figure studies that he utilized not only in his painted work but also in compositional drawings.

It was a miniature treasure. And 50A had the familiar Vermeer treasures, which I viewed before heading through the rotunda to the other side, leaving Gail back in 14th-century Italy. Our plan was to meet up at the Rotunda by 1:45 if we didn’t run into each other sooner, allowing ourselves (just enough) time to walk back to the hotel, pack up, check out, and take a taxi to Dulles Airport for our 5:20 flight back to Seattle.

It’s awfully hard to have just an hour in the National Gallery. But an hour is better than no time at all. I intended to focus on the American collection, but as I started to race through 18th-century France, I remembered that I actually like Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Maybe I should slow down and see what Fragonards are in the gallery. Another wise decision, as the National Gallery’s Fragonard collection is spectacular.

For the most part, 18th-century French paintings aren’t the sort of thing that captivate me. One day maybe twenty years ago at the Frick Collection , however, as I was about to speed once again through their famed Fragonard room, I decided to stop and open my eyes. And I was indeed captivated by his series of paintings, The Progress of Love. (See the Frick’s link here, for instance, and see as well the links listed on that page, plus the video below.)

The National Gallery’s collection of Fragonard’s paintings is extensive. Their website has a fine short biography of him, plus information on all their paintings. I particularly enjoyed the pair Blindman’s Bluff and The Swing from the 1770s. I took photos of both with my iPhone, but the photos are terrible. You’re better off going to the links I’ve provided and then clicking on the full screen image links, though these hardly begin to do the paintings justice. They are magnificent. You need to see them in person.

Well, okay, here’s my photo of Blindman’s Bluff:

Blindman's Bluff, Jean-Honoré Fragonard

I did make it to the American collection. So much to see. So little time. At the top of this post is another of my pathetic iPhone photos, of Edward Hicks’ Cornell Farm, or most of it anyway.

Suddenly it was 1:35. I left the American paintings behind, re-visited Fragonard, then returned to the rotunda and awaited Gail. When I saw her coming from the western end of the permanent collection, I realized she hadn’t gotten far at all. I quickly brought her into the 50 suite of rooms so she could get a glimpse of the Avercamp show, plus the Vermeers. Then we headed down the stairs, out onto Constitution Avenue, and made the long, hot, humid walk back to the hotel.

Squeezing in both Ford’s Theater and the National Gallery (and lunch) was ambitious, but well worth it, even if we were now under time pressure. We were out of the hotel and in the taxi by 3:00. The front desk clerk, on learning where we were heading, was astonished that we were cutting the trip to the airport so close, but traffic wasn’t so bad and we were at Dulles by 3:35. All went well from there.

A great trip. So much seen. So much more to see next time.

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Categories: Art, Travel
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