We wholeheartedly agree with the Arts Council England study that found visiting art galleries makes you happy.
After touring dozens of European art galleries we were looking forward to discovering more paintings by North American artists. In addition to a wonderful variety of works by the old European masters we found paintings by a few of our favorite American artists such as Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt.
New-to-us American artists we discovered in various galleries throughout DC and whose whose painting styles appealed to us, were: Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900); George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935); Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902); Winslow Homer (1836-1910); Everett Raymond Kinstler (1926-2019); Robert Templeton (1929-1991); Rosemarie Sloat (1929-2019); Robert “Bob” Coronato (1970-); Kehinde Wiley (1977-); Amy Sherald (1973-); James F. Walker (1913-1994); Edward Hicks (1780-1849); and undoubtedly our favorite, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). There are examples of paintings by each in the links below.
In a recent blog – The Smithsonian Institution – we wrote about touring the Freer Gallery of Art and the Museum of African Art. The remaining galleries we visited we cover here.
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art comprises one Sculpture Garden and two Buildings that are linked by an underground passage called “the Concourse”. The gallery was built on the former site where James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, was assassinated in 1881.
The West Building, opened in 1941, exhibits fine European art and sculptures as well as a collection of pre-20th century, wonderful paintings by American artists. The East Building, opened in 1978, is where we found modern and contemporary works from artists worldwide.
One of the largest museums in North America and not a part of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Gallery of Art was established in 1937 by a joint resolution between the US Congress and Andrew W. Mellon, who donated his substantial art collection and the funds to construct the building. This not-to-miss collection includes “Portrait of Ginevra Benci”, the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas.
We were drawn to a beautiful collection of innovative mobiles created by American sculpture, Alexander Calder (1898-1976).
We found a series of four large poignant paintings called The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole that stopped us in our tracks. The paintings are named Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age and are linked at the bottom. The artist also wrote the accompanying texts. This is also a Thomas Cole painting that highlights his meticulous talent.
The 6.1 acre National Sculpture Garden was created in 1999 and exhibits large contemporary sculptural pieces.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) is best remembered as an American comic book style, pop artist. Perhaps less known are the sculptures he created. His two dimensional house sculpture visually changed as you circled it.
Note: We combined our photos of the National Gallery Sculpture Garden and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden into one link below.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (commonly known as SAAM), is located in the historic Old Patent Office building. Co-located with the National Portrait Gallery, another Smithsonian museum, the two museums are also collectively called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
The museum has a wide variety of American art from the colonial period to the present from with more than 7,000 artists.
American painter George Catlin (1796-1872) specialized in portraits of Native Americans. He traveled through the American West for 8 years during the 1830s writing about and painting portraits and scenes depicting the life of the Plains Indians. After also reading pages from one of Catlin’s published journals “Illustrations of the manners, customs & condition of the North American Indians”, it is clear he demonstrated a gentle curiosity and sensitivity for each of the tribal customs he witnessed and the tribes and chiefs he met. His paintings seem to capture a peacefulness in each individual that posed for him.
Among the artists represented in the SAAM is the extraordinarily talented “Mother of American modernism”, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Of the 2,000+ paintings she made in her lifetime, she is most known for her 200 enlarged flower paintings, New Mexico landscapes and images of animal skulls. In 1938 she was invited to create 2 paintings for Dole Food. She traveled to Honolulu in 1939, aboard the ocean liner, SS Lurline. The photo below is one of 20 paintings she created from her 9-week stay in the Hawaiian Islands.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) is, to date, the highest price paid for a painting by a female artist. In 1977 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ford; in 1985 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Reagan and in 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her most unusual honor however, could be the fossilized species of archosaur (crocodile ancestor) that was named Effigia okeeffeae (“O’Keeffe’s Ghost”) so named to honor the artist’s numerous paintings of the badlands at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) opened in 1968 with a stated purpose to display portraits of “women and men who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States. The gallery’s collection today numbers more than 23,000 works including a complete collection of Presidential portraits as well as the nation’s First Ladies.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
The most popular American poet of his day, in part for his poem that school children still learn. Here is the first stanza.
Paul Revere’s Ride
“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the 18th of April, in ’75;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year”…
Love this famous Longfellow quote: “It takes less time to do a thing right than explain why you did it wrong.”
Julie E. Packard (born 1953)
American ocean conservationist and philanthropist Julie Packard has been the executive director of the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California since the Aquarium opened in 1984.
This dynamic and dedicated scientist has received the Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, been elected as a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, received a lifetime achievement award from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and continues to serve on several commissions concentrating on national ocean policy.
The National Portraits Gallery offered much more than we anticipated and we recommend spending time discovering its secrets.
A branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery is dedicated to decorative arts and crafts. Located very near the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, this historic building is one of DC’s most charming. The gallery was designed in 1859 by architect James Renwick, who was influenced by Parisian architecture, and the building soon earned the nickname “the American Louvre”. Originally built to house William Corcoran’s personal art collection the building was named the Corcoran Gallery of Art Building.
Before the gallery could open the US Army seized the property and occupied it for several years during and after the civil war. The building was eventually returned to Corcoran and in 1874 the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened to the public. Two decades later the collection had outgrown its space and relocated to a building nearby. The Court of Claims then moved into the building in 1899. By the 1950’s and desperately needing more space, the Court of Claims proposed to demolish the building. Luckily, in 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened and in 1965 the building was transferred to the Smithsonian. In 1972 the gallery reopened as the Renwick Gallery.
The header photo, Janet Echelman’s fiber and colored lights was taken in the Grand Salon at the Renwick.
We visited this wonderful gallery twice during our stay. During the first visit we were able to catch the final day of a temporary exhibition called ‘Arboria’ by Seattle glass artist, Debora Moore (1960). This amazing collection featured glass sculptures of flowering cherry, magnolia and winter plum trees.
There were so many interesting installations at the Renwick. One couldn’t help but stop and gaze up at Leo Villareal’s enormous LED chandelier hanging above the staircase. Another room had a beautiful Dale Chihuly (1941) Seafoam and Amber-Tipped Chandelier hanging. There was a stunning set of gates made of brass, bronze, copper and steel created by Albert Paley (1944). Named one of “Five Pieces at Smithsonian Museums and Galleries You Shouldn’t Miss” is Kim Schmahmann’s (1955) Bureau of Bureaucracy, a magnificently crafted “wooden cabinet full of cupboards to nowhere, bottomless drawers, drawers within drawers, hidden compartments”. An amusing metaphor on both the image and inner workings of government. Photos are below in the Renwick Gallery link.
This delicate brooch by Sergey Jivetin (1977) caught our eye. When you look closely you will see it is made from watch hands.
The Phillips Collection
A docent from the National Gallery of Art recommended we visit the Phillips Collection that is still housed in the Phillip’s 1897 Georgian Revival home.
Marjorie Acker Phillips (1894-1985) an American Impressionist painter and art collector, along with her husband, Duncan Phillips, in 1921 co-founded the museum. They preferred collecting modern art and the museum today is known for its impressionist and modern collection. You can see European masters like Braque, Cézanne, Degas, El Greco, Goya, Kandinsky, Miró, Mondrian, Monet, O’Keeffe, Picasso, Rodin, Rothko, Van Gogh to name just a few.
Throughout his lifetime, Phillips acquired paintings by many artists who were not yet known, thereby providing them with the means to continue painting. Among those were John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Augustus Vincent Tack. He purchased 40 pieces of Tack’s abstracts alone.
Cathy Abramson’s (1951) evocative oil paintings each tell a story. She successfully paints people and scenes about the times we live in. Her painting below entitled “Waiting for Takeout (To-Go), 2021” will resonate for many of us.
Studies have shown that in addition to feeling more cheerful, viewing art can lead to a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone. We love the visual feast of an art gallery, learning about the human history of a country and absorbing and embracing its art and culture. We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of discussion material museums and galleries add to our daily conversations.
Cheers from these Washingtonians,
Ted + Julia