We had a great time in Washington, DC this past week. A visit to the National Gallery of Art inspired the title of this post but I will return to that later. I have visited all the world’s best art museums, with the exception of the Getty and the Prado, but the National Gallery is the one that I enjoy the most. Part of my enjoyment may be because it is my national museum but by any measure it is one of the best art museums in the world. The buildings are well designed with a paramount concern for the protection of the art and comfort of the visitor. Compare this to the Hermitage with its bad lighting, limited gallery seating, open windows exposing the art to the elements, and the horrible lines for entry.
You can spend the day in the National Gallery never needing to leave for lunch or coffee. The four cafes are inviting and cater to all tastes. Our favorite is the Cascade Café, with a view of the cascade waterfall and a full menu of soups, salads, specialty entrées, sandwiches, and a nice selection of fresh pastries and desserts. You can have lunch, browse some more and then return to the Espresso and Gelato Bar for an afternoon snack.
The supreme measure of any museum is the collection. The National Gallery’s collection is divided between the West Building and the East Building. The West Building has an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by European masters from the medieval period through the late 19th century, as well as 20th century works by American artists. Highlights of the collection include paintings by Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci. The East Building focuses on modern and contemporary art including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, and a 1977 mural by Robert Motherwell.
We only had time to visit the West Building during this trip. I am always amazed at the quality of the American collection and disappointed that we did not spend more time on American artists when I was a student. It seemed that our instructors had a European bias. Of course European painting has a much longer tradition but look at a few of these examples from John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, and Thomas Moran and you will see why I love the American painters. Add Georgia O’Keefe and Mary Cassatt and you have a fab five that can compare to any group of painters from any time or place.
If you have made it this far then you must be curious about the title. If you have read earlier posts then you know that Italy is one of my favorite places to visit. Italian artists are also among my favorite artists so of course we visited the Italian section. Italian Renaissance painters frequently paint women with one breast exposed. In some paintings, the model will be pinching her nipple or having her nipple pinched by another woman. As you can see in these examples, the paintings are gorgeous.
The majority of these early paintings were commissioned by art patrons such as the Medici family of Florence. Sublime works such as Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus were painted for Lorenzo Medici not for the Uffizi Gallery. Lorenzo did not have Playboy, the Internet or cable television but he did have artists who could paint scenes for his bedroom or study. The paintings that we worship today may well have been the Renaissance elites’ erotic images.
I can imagine Lorenzo and his pals lifting a few glasses and toasting the addition of the Primavera to his collection. Piero the Unfortunate, Lorenzo’s son and successor, would probably be the first to say, “It is nice but if possible could Botticelli show some breast in the next painting.”
Whatever art theory you subscribe to, or whatever you want to see, the National Gallery’s rich collection is the place to be. Plus, it is free for all. We have a return trip booked for the end of March.