I did the sketches above from the photos I took when I got home.
The National Gallery in Washington D.C., USA has two wings – one focussed on old masters; one focussed on modern and contemporary art. I visited both with the idea of focussing on the figure and life art. Visiting both wings was a great opportunity to see how different artists across time and schools approached the human form.
Here are a few highlights.
I started with some sculptures. The serenity and beauty of classical style marble sculpture contrasted with Rodin’s highly expressive Thinker or Degas delicate little dancers. In all cases, the power comes from the use of negative space as much as the positive sculpture.
Special exhibition: Edvard Munch
There was a small special collection of some Munch woodcuts and prints. Munch’s expressionist use of colour is of course striking but I was also interested how much information and emotion he achieves with so few marks and tonal changes.
I thought this Da Varallo was a great example of Renaissance work. The posture creating a dynamic and dramatic scene. The delicate glazing giving life-like depth to the skin.
This Circle of Valazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X was the highlight of the old masters. It just grabbed me. I kept expecting him to bark something disapproving at me. I was the tension in the forehead, the eyes and 3 quarter position that did that. I also thought it interesting to see this Valasquez style – more rough and expressive where you can see the brush strokes but they become part of the texture of the skin and person. This is different to the delicate sfumato glazes of the Titian’s or Da Varallo above.
It reminded me of the style of Rembrandt. Low and behold a couple of rooms on I had these treats in store.
It was a privilege to see the famous self-portrait up close where you could, like the Valasquez, see how he had used the thickness, texture and visible brush strokes to represent the texture of an old man. I also loved the use of light to define the composition in the Descent from the cross – it reminded me of a piece I saw in Louvre last year, again by Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655.
The next set to compare and contrast were the impressionists and post-impressionists. Building on the more expressive, less “photo realistic” work of Rembrandt and others I was intrigued to see the way these artists represented the human form.
Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait – tortured and brutal I can’t help but copy that straining frown when I look at this, is at the polar opposite from Van Gogh’s delicate and serene Girl in White. The difference being delivered bu the choice of colour palette and the difference in the degree of impasto.
The girl in white motif came up again later with Whistler’s tour de force. His use of subtle shifts in tone and hue produces amazing depth for what is largely a white canvass. I noticed as well that the Lilly in her hand is really only distinguishable from her dress because of the impasto molding of the paint into its shape – it is almost sculptural and reminiscent of Van Gogh.
Then we moved onto some wonderful draughtsmanship of Toulouse-Lautrec. Given the drawing course, it was great to see the individual line work. Where previous artists captured the character through tone and hue – here the flow of line does that.
Fauvism and expressionism
Next, I entered the modern and contemporary art wing. here there was an exhibition on fauvism, expressionism and abstract expressionism. The wonderful use of line and use of simple planes of colour continued with Weber, Mattisse, and O’Keefe.
This section had a couple of piece by Picasso and Matisse that are very different from the style we usually associate with them. You could see in these the link back to the impressionists. I particularly liked the Mattisse – the simple use of areas of tone and colour that so expertly give the impression of the underlying anatomical structure. Again I was intrigued by how much information can be captured with very few and simple marks.
..and then there was this. I was intrigued by the technique and the way the combination of line and plane traps your eye.
In a final couple of galleries, there was some more contemporary work.
This caught my eye because of the dynamic pose and the careful way Nickson recreates the different angles each spinal section makes.
I loved this from Chuck Close. It’s on an impressive scale and looks almost photographic. Up close though you see its actually a finger painting. The broken marks of Close’s fingerprint add to the super-wrinkly texture. I also loved the idea of Close’s finger tracing every inch of the face.
One final observation was that the gallery has a “Copyist” programme. The copyist program offers an opportunity for artists to study the techniques of old masters through intimate study in the galleries. As I walked around I saw a number of artists copying various pieces. It was a great opportunity to see an artist working. For example this piece at the tonal stage.