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Recent Acquisitions

Listed below are some of the most important recent additions to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art.


George Caleb Bingham,The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846


George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2015.18.1

George Caleb Bingham was one of the most important American painters of genre subjects in the mid-19th century. His series of scenes of life and work on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers established his reputation in his own day and are today recognized as his finest creations. The Jolly Flatboatmen, along with Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art), are the masterpieces of Bingham’s river pictures and icons of American art. In 1847, the American Art-Union, which had purchased The Jolly Flatboatmen directly from the artist, produced a large mezzotint of it that was distributed to its members (approximately 10,000) throughout the country, immediately making it one of the best-known works of art of its era. It depicts a group of men who, after accomplishing the hard work of loading their flatboat with cargo, are now relaxing and enjoying music and dancing. Bingham’s careful attention to detail is everywhere evident—a raccoon pelt hanging from a nail; a coil of rope; a turkey, which sticks its head out between the slats of the crate below the dancing man; a blue shirt hanging to dry. The composition is at once dynamic—the dancing man and the musicians—and elegantly stable in the way Bingham arranged the figures to form an isosceles triangle. The painting survives in superb condition, with its subtle brushwork, soft colors, and precise drawing intact.

The Jolly Flatboatmen joins two paintings by Bingham already in the Gallery’s collection—a fine early landscape, Cottage Scenery (1845) and Mississippi Boatman (1850). The Gallery’s recent acquisition of works from the Corcoran collection significantly strengthened its representation of American genre painting. Superb works were added by Bingham’s contemporaries William Sidney Mount (The Tough Story–Scene in a Country Tavern, 1837), William Tylee Ranney (The Retrieve, 1850), and Richard Caton Woodville (Waiting for the Stage, 1851). The Jolly Flatboatmen now becomes the cornerstone of that group and one of the most significant paintings in the Gallery’s collection of 19th-century American paintings.


Aaron Douglas, The Last Judgment, 1939


Aaron Douglas, The Last Judgment, 1939, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons' Permanent Fund, The Avalon Fund, 2014.135.1

In 1927 James Weldon Johnson, a key figure in what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, published his masterwork, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Inspired by African American preachers whose eloquent orations he viewed as an art form, Johnson sought to translate into verse not only the biblical parables that served as the subjects of the sermons, but also the passion with which they were delivered — the cadence and rhythm of the inspirational language. Identifying black preachers as God’s instruments on earth, or “God’s trombones,” Johnson celebrated a key element of traditional black culture. Years before the publication of his poems, while traveling through the Midwest as a field organizer for the NAACP, Johnson witnessed a gifted black preacher rouse a congregation drifting toward sleep. Summoning his oratorical powers, the preacher abandoned his prepared text, stepped down from the pulpit and delivered — indeed performed — an impassioned sermon. Impressed by what he had seen, Johnson made notes on the spot, but he did not translate the experience into sermon-poems until several years later. Upon publication, God’s Trombones attracted considerable attention — not only for Johnson’s uniquely original verse, but also for the astonishing illustrations that accompanied the poems. Created by Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979), a young African American artist who had recently settled in Harlem, the images were an early manifestation of a compositional style that would later become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Drawn by the cultural excitement stirring in Harlem during the mid- 1920s, Douglas arrived in New York in 1925. He soon became a student of Winold Reiss, a German-born artist/ illustrator and early proponent of European modernism in America. It was Reiss who encouraged Douglas to study African art as well as the compositional and tonal innovations of the European modernists. Before long, illustrations by Douglas began appearing in The Crisis, the NAACP publication edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life published by the National Urban League. Impressed by these illustrations, James Weldon Johnson asked Douglas to illustrate his forthcoming book of poems, God’s Trombones. On short deadline, Douglas created eight images that clearly reflect the influence of Reiss as well as the artist’s close study of African art. Bold and unmistakably modern, Douglas’  images were immediately recognized as the visual equivalent of equally important breakthroughs in African American literature, music, and theater.

Several years after the publication of God’s Trombones, Douglas began translating the eight illustrations he had created to accompany Johnson’s poems into large oil paintings. The Judgment Day, the final painting in the series of eight, is the first work by Douglas to enter the collection. At the center of the composition a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea. With trumpet call, the archangel summons the nations of the earth to judgment. Recasting both the biblical narrative and the visual vocabulary of art deco and synthetic cubism, Douglas created an image as racially impassioned as the sermons of the black preachers celebrated in God’s Trombones.


Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947


Henri Matisse, The Wolf, from Jazz, 1947, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

From the moment it appeared in 1947, Matisse’s Jazz has been widely considered the most beautiful and perhaps the most significant artist’s book of the twentieth century. It consists of 20 brilliantly colored stencils re-creating collages that the artist had made from cut out pieces of painted paper. In the first version, these plates were interspersed with sheets of text—Matisse’s poetic reflections on the images—in his own cursive brushwork. The plates and the text were then folded in two, left unbound, and published in a run of 250 copies. In a supplemental printing of 100 copies, the plates alone were issued as regular prints in a portfolio. The National Gallery of Art previously possessed only this later version. The Mellon bequest brings a proof copy of the definitive work—the composite of vibrant image and allusive text that Matisse intended.

Jazz inaugurated the final stage in Matisse’s long and carefully deliberated research. It was his first major work to use cut-outs—what he called “painting with scissors.” Individually titled, the subjects of the plates refer to mythology and circus performance as well as simple landscape features. The bold pattern and seeming happenstance of the book’s compositions recall collages of the first generation of modern art, but are purged of everyday and incidental elements, returning their man-made order to some natural state. The forms, from stylized figuration to curvilinear geometry, distill the intriguing shapes and complicated matter of surrealism to a similarly pure essence. Throughout, while reference to the music of the title is never explicit, the feeling of recurrent theme, irresistible rhythm, and improvisation pervades as much as in the bars of post-War Paris. Most of Matisse’s work from his remaining years extended and elaborated upon the style expressed in Jazz.

Matisse’s discovery of this style had begun in 1941, when he was struck and left weakened by cancer. Surviving, taking on a young assistant and mistress, Lydia Delectoskaya, and embracing the cut-out, with its recollection of his family’s tradition of cloth work, Matisse felt that he had entered “a second life.” That this second life, including the creation of the collages themselves, unfolded during the middle years of the Second World War must have seemed triumphant and all the more exuberant. That exuberance is still palpable. Some seventy years later, to look at Jazz is to take sheer delight in the senses and to feel a lightness of being. It is no wonder that the book became a touchstone of modern design at its most vibrant and optimistic, or that the image of Icarus against the firmament remains an emblem of the human condition.

Edward Steichen, An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 1921


Edward Steichen, An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 1921, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2014.114.1

An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, 1921, one of Edward Steichen’s most distinguished works, was made as he embarked on a radically new phase in his art. Abandoning his soft-focus, painterly style, Steichen examined the apple with a clarity unknown in his earlier art. By inverting the apple, much as Paul Cézanne had done, he emphasized both its formal and tactile qualities and showed how a small object, when seen in a new light, can assume the monumentality and significance of a much larger one.

Steichen’s early career was meteoric. Following an apprenticeship at a lithography firm in Milwaukee where he taught himself how to paint and make photographs, he exhibited his painterly photographs at an 1899 Philadelphia salon and was hailed by Alfred Stieglitz as the embodiment of the new fine art photographer. In the early 20th century as Stieglitz’s protégé and collaborator, he moved between Paris and New York, where he made both paintings and photographs and established connections with such painters and sculptors such as Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and John Marin. In 1905, he encouraged Stieglitz to open the 291 Gallery in New York and arranged for many of its initial groundbreaking exhibitions of modern European and American art. Yet their close friendship became strained before the outbreak of World War I when Stieglitz grew enamored of the Proto-Dada work of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp; it ended during the war when Stieglitz voiced his pro-German sympathies and Steichen joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

After the war, Steichen was depressed, uncertain about his future, and conflicted about the merit of his previous art. While convalescing in France, he saw the naïve paintings of his gardener and recognized that they had a “curious charm and direct simplicity” lacking in his own work. Abandoning painting, he decided to focus exclusively on photography and began a self-imposed apprenticeship to better understand the basics of photography and gain greater control over his negatives. After spending months photographing a cup and saucer to learn about light and texture, he began to address the question of how to express volume in his pictures. He decided to use very dim light and exceptionally long exposures. Yet he serendipitously discovered that because his exposures were so long—from six to 36 hours—the dramatic changes in temperature and humidity (from day to night and back to day again) caused the camera, film, and even the objects he was photographing to expand and contract slightly, all of which was recorded in his negative. With this breakthrough, he was “for the first time in a photograph able to sense both volume and form,” he later said. He then experimented with methods of making his prints, and determined that either platinum or palladium paper gave him both a long, subtle tonal range and a softness that enhanced the appreciation of volume.

An Apple, A Boulder, A Mountain, a stunning and exceptionally rare platinum print, is one of the most distinguished works from this series. His close-up scrutiny of a natural form closely links this photograph with works by other American modernist artists of the 1920s, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and Edward Weston, while its simple elegance predicts the best portraits and fashion photographs Steichen would make later in the 1920s.

Richard Diebenkorn, Green, 1986


Best known for his Ocean Park paintings to which Green is related, California artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) began making prints at Crown Point Press in 1963, a year after its founding, and worked there almost annually from 1977 until his death. Whether engaged in a purely abstract mode, a figurative mode, or with favored motifs such as clubs and spades, revision was integral to Diebenkorn’s creative process.

Green is widely considered to be Diebenkorn’s greatest print and was a highlight of the Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press exhibition, presented at the National Gallery in 2013. The print came into the collection in 1996, and now three outstanding preliminary impressions, known as proofs, of Green have been added. The earliest proof of Green has so much gray wash, it is arguably more watercolor than print; and the last has so many pasted-on elements, it is arguably more collage than print. 

After roughing out a composition and printing it in black, Diebenkorn would work back in—“attacking,” he said, select passages and revising through gradual, often numerous, changes. These modifications would typically occur in the print’s periphery. Although seemingly minor, their cumulative effect could be transformative. A mark resembling an infinity sign in the upper left of the first proof is camouflaged in the last one. And a curve in the lower left of the first proof gradually morphs into what looks like the upturned tail of a cat. In the final print, that tail is absorbed into a volcano-shaped mound. Diebenkorn was alert to how each change in a composition, no matter how minor, could alter its dynamics. He set his artistic course to an elusive “rightness,” a term he regularly invoked and navigated by following an intuitive sense of what worked, reassessing and adjusting as he went along.

In conjunction with the purchase of the three proof impressions of Green, Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, has donated three more related proofs, each one unique, plus an additional fifty-seven works, from 1972 to 2010, by twenty-four Crown Point artists, including Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, Julie Mehretu, Chris Ofili, Kiki Smith, Wayne Thiebaud, and Fred Wilson.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn, Green (working proof 1), 1986, drypoint in black with wash and pasted-down elements,  Kathan Brown, © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. 2014.116.55

Richard Diebenkorn, Green (working proof 2), 1986, spitbite aquatint in blue and drypoint in red, Kathan Brown, © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. 2014.115.1

Richard Diebenkorn, Green (working proof 7), 1986, color spitbite aquatint, soapground aquatint, and drypoint with pasted-down elements,  Kathan Brown, © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn, Green, 1986, color spitbite aquatint, soapground aquatint, and drypoint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Eugene L. and Marie-Louise Garbáty Fund and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1996, © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. 1996.77.77

Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936


Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 2014.113.1


One of the most iconic works by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, Montana was published on the cover of the inaugural issue of Life magazine on November 23, 1936. Assigned by Henry Luce to cover the massive New Deal project, Bourke-White photographed the dam, the spillway, and daily life in the surrounding boomtown. A striking representation of the machine age, the photograph depicts the stark, massive piers for an elevated highway located on the spillway, some three miles from the dam. Monumental in stature, the piers tower over two workers located at the bottom center of the print. The two men not only provide the necessary indication of scale, but also quietly reveal the vulnerable position of the worker in the modern industrial landscape. Lush and warm-toned, this exhibition-sized photograph made in the prime of her career is a key work in the development of documentary photography during the 1930s and augments the museum’s rich holdings of work by Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott.

Trained at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in 1922, Bourke-White quickly became a successful commercial photographer and a pioneer of photojournalism, working for both Fortune and Life magazines. During her career, Bourke-White recorded the power and beauty of American industry as well as the social hardship and labor challenges facing individual Americans. Weaving the pageantry of capitalism with dramatic personal narratives, she established a mode of documentary photography infused with emotional appeal.  Even her own persona was crafted in this manner as newspapers remarked on her daring feats to capture the most riveting image, from climbing out onto the steel frame of the Chrysler Building to standing on a steel mill floor amidst flying sparks of molten metal.

Besides important commissions for corporate patrons in the United States, Bourke-White made several trips to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to photograph the country’s new manufacturing towns. She also authored around a dozen books, including the problematic You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a documentary photography book examining the impoverished lives of sharecroppers in the South where Bourke-White and co-author Erskine Caldwell contrived a dialogue to accompany the photographs, rather than relying on the words of the subjects themselves. Bourke-White would later become a war correspondent. The first woman to fly a combat mission during World War II, she also photographed German bombs falling on Moscow and the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Fort Peck Dam, Montana
is the first photograph by Bourke-White to enter the collection.

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 1889


Vincent van Gogh, Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 2014.18.13

Vincent van Gogh painted this picture soon after his release from the hospital, where he was recovering from the disastrous final days of Paul Gauguin’s stay with him in Arles. In a long letter to his brother Theo posted January 23, 1889, he mentions creating this painting alongside several other issues, including the need to make money through picture sales. He likely had the market in mind in painting this still life.

The painter was clearly attracted to the shapes and hues of the citrus fruit arrayed in the wicker basket, and the way their varied orb shapes play against the weave of the dried sticks, the whole set off by the prickly needles of the cypress branches. Van Gogh refers in his letter to an “air of chic” in this picture, prompted perhaps by the inclusion of blue garden gloves. The painting reveals the artist’s extraordinarily original sense of color, as well as his richly expressive paint application as he struggles to evoke the nubby waxen skin of the various fruits, the spiky fur of the branches, and the limp material of the worn gloves.

In the letter to Theo, the artist also describes the melancholic departure of his close friend Joseph Roulin, who was temporarily leaving his family for a new post in Marseilles, and reports a particularly touching moment during which the father bounced his newborn daughter Marcelle on his knee. Van Gogh would return to the hospital within the month following a second mental breakdown.

With its reference to pruning and fruit gathering, the painting was likely a particular favorite of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who with her husband Paul Mellon bought the picture in 1962. Bunny Mellon was an ardent horticulturalist, landscape designer, and collector of rare garden books. Although her husband gave the painting to the National Gallery of Art in 1999, she lived with the picture hanging in her home until her own death in March 2014.


Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donna che indica (Woman who points), 1962/1982


Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donna che indica (Woman who points), 1962/1982, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2014.28.1



A painter, sculptor, and performer, Michelangelo Pistoletto is part of a generation of Italian artists that emerged during the 1960s and became identified with the Arte Povera (Poor Art) movement. He is also the most important Italian artist associated with the international new realism/pop art movement.

Pistoletto was born in Biella, near Turin, in 1933. His father Ettore, a conservator, was his first art teacher, and introduced him to the techniques of old master painting. While enrolled in a commercial art school in Turin, Pistoletto ran an advertising studio and made his first paintings on canvas from 1956–1961. He discovered the technique of applying painted tissue paper to polished stainless steel in 1962. The resulting series of Mirror paintings catapulted Pistoletto’s career. Instantly seen as a kind of Italian pop art, these works were exhibited by the influential dealers Ileana Sonnabend and Gian Enzo Sperone, and were acquired by American collectors and museums (including the Walker Art Center, where Pistoletto had a one-man show in 1966). Pistoletto’s forays into sculpture during this period, such as the Minus Objects (1965–1966) and works incorporating rags and light bulbs (1967–1968), became identified with a new kind of Italian sculpture using natural and industrial materials known as Arte Povera.

Donna che indica (Woman who points) is from the second series of Mirror paintings, which Pistoletto began in 1973. In the earlier works, Pistoletto affixed tissue paper hand-drawn and -painted from a photographic print to the sheet of stainless steel; in this second series, he attached a silkscreened image of the photographic source to the metal surface. The silkscreened works appeared more anonymous in execution and more ethereal than his previous Mirror paintings. Inspired by Byzantine icons and Renaissance art, the Mirror paintings are both illusionistic and literal, incorporating the reflections of the spectator and gallery within the scenarios they create. One of the artist’s rare double-panel works, Donna che indica extends this illusionistic conceit across a wall, encompassing more spectators and a larger portion of reflected space than most of Pistoletto’s works. The five-centimeter division between the two sheets reveals the wall, interrupting the work’s seamless illusionism.

Donna che indica
is the first work by Pistoletto to enter the Gallery’s collection. It is a significant example of late 20th century Italian art, an area in which the Gallery is keen to expand. Related works include Mimmo Rotella’s collage Muro Romano, 1958, Mario Merz’s sculpture Lingotto, 1969, and photographs by Arte Povera figures Giovanni Anselmo (Entering the Work, 1971), Giuseppe Penone (To Unfold One’s Skin, 1970–1971 and Untitled, 1974), and Gilbero Zorio (Radical Fluidity, 1971).

Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 2002


Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, 2002, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund2014.3.1



May Flowers
, a compelling photograph of three young African American girls, succinctly addresses the issues of race, class, and gender that the American artist Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) has explored for more than 30 years. Part of a series Weems made in 2002 (titled May Days Long Forgotten, evoking both spring’s renewal and the May Day celebrations of International Workers’ Day), May Flowers depicts girls from working-class families in Syracuse, New York, wearing floral-print dresses. Its tondo format, truncated foreground space, and tight focus on the figures harks back to Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child, while its subject—adolescent girls with flowers in their hair, lounging on the grass—recalls both 19th-century paintings and photographs, such as those by Julia Margaret Cameron. Weems intensified this historical character by printing the photograph in sepia tones and placing it in a circular frame that makes the piece seem as if it would be perfectly at home in a 19th-century parlor.

Yet, the color of the girls’ skin belies such a history, even as their beauty and knowing expressions—especially the authoritative look of the central figure—challenge viewers to question why they have been excluded for so long. Further complicating and enriching the work, Weems glazed it with a piece of convex glass of the type commonly used in 18th- and 19th-century mirrors, as if to suggest that the image represents a reflection of the world at large.

May Flowers is the first work by Weems, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, to enter the collection of the National Gallery of Art. It was acquired with the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. Like other recent additions to the collection from artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, and Byron Kim, it is a powerful statement on the role of race in American society.

Romare Bearden, Odysseus Suite: Home to Ithaca, 1979

Home to Ithaca

Romare Bearden, Odysseus Suite, 1979, six screenprints, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Purchased as the Gift of Richard A. Simms, 2013.142.6


Romare Bearden mined a wide range of sources: the Bible, the writings of French satirist François Rabelais, his childhood memories of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, the people and streets of Harlem, the epic poems of Homer, and more. He revisited many of these themes time and time again. Thus he made ink drawings and watercolors inspired by Homer’s Iliad in the 1940s, and a series of twenty collages based on The Odyssey in 1977.

Bearden’s collages drew strong praise when they were exhibited at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York’s Upper East Side in the spring of 1977, and he went on to make watercolor versions around the same time. About two years later, he translated six of the collage compositions into screenprints, which were published as the Odysseus Suite in 1979.


Romare Bearden, Odysseus Suite: Home to Ithaca, 1979, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Purchased as the Gift of Richard A. Simms, 2013.142.6

In Home to Ithaca, the fourth print of the suite, Bearden added a twist. Homer relates that Odysseus was asleep on the ship’s deck when his vessel sailed into Ithaca’s harbor. But Bearden portrays Odysseus poised triumphantly on the ship’s bow, a shield in one hand and a spear in the other. In creating a black Odyssey—all the figures in the suite are dark skinned—Bearden not only cast Homer’s tale in unconventional terms, he underscored the myth’s universality, such that a “child in Benin or [one] in Louisiana,” in his words, would appreciate its relevancy.

Yves Tanguy, Untitled, 1936


Yves Tanguy, French, Untitled, 1936, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Gift of Robert and Mercedes Eichholz, 2014.17.27


Yves Tanguy did not set out to be an artist. Born in Paris in 1900, he joined the merchant marines when he was 18, and subsequently was drafted into military service. Upon his return to Paris in 1922, he held various odd jobs (newsboy, packer, and streetcar driver, to name a few) before a chance encounter—the sight of an enigmatic painting by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico in the window of an art gallery—prompted him to start making small-scale drawings and watercolors. In 1925 he met André Breton, spokesman for the surrealists, and soon took up painting.

Here Tanguy depicts an illusionistic space that appears as dreamlike as it does real, a no-man’s-land that suggests “a kind of absolute reality—a surreality,” as Breton wrote in the Manifeste du surréalisme. Tightly executed, the work portrays a scene frozen in time, populated with biomorphic forms that look hyperreal, forsaken, and otherworldly. The sense of mystery is all the more heightened by the absence of an identifiable horizon line and the presence of elongated black shadows.

Eight paintings and five drawings by Tanguy were included in Alfred Barr’s seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936, sanctioning, in a sense, both Tanguy and the surrealist movement. Indeed, the movement secured a solid foothold in the United States that year, which was an especially active one for Tanguy. In addition to being featured in the MoMA exhibition, he enjoyed solo shows at New York and Los Angeles galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. Three years later, with war in Europe imminent, Tanguy emigrated from France to the United States, where he lived for the remainder of his career.

While the National Gallery of Art has an important painting by Tanguy, The Look of Amber (1929), this new work is the first gouache by Tanguy to enter the collection. It comes as part of a larger bequest of twenty-nine works from Mercedes Eichholz (1917–2013), including paintings and drawings by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Wifredo Lam, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

Nicolò Boldrini, Hercules and the Nemean Lion, c. 1566

Hercules and the Nemean Lion

Nicolò Boldrini, Hercules and the Nemean Lion, c. 1566, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund,


Woodcuts printed in color from multiple blocks are usually termed “chiaroscuro,” an Italian word meaning “light and dark"—a reference to their broad areas of contrasting tone. From their origin in the early 16th century, such woodcuts have been admired for their striking effects, resemblance to finished drawings, and demanding production process. These works require separate blocks, and thus separate printing runs, for the outline of the design and for each color. The print is successful only when the sheet is aligned precisely each time it is run through the press. In Italy the technique flourished in Rome during the late 1510s and early 1520s, in Bologna during the 1530s and 1540s, and in Mantua at the end of the century. In Venice the chiaroscuro woodcut took a distinctive form—elaborate line work with large areas of a single tone—and appeared throughout the century in special projects amid that school’s production of conventional woodcuts. Venetian chiaroscuros are many fewer in number than those from other areas of Italy, and impressions are usually limited to later printings of the line block. The most significant and accomplished group of Venetian chiaroscuro woodcuts is attributed to Nicolò Boldrini. The attribution is based upon a single signed work as well as the style of a group of woodcuts after designs by Titian. Of these prints, Hercules and the Nemean Lion is by far the most elaborate in composition and articulate in execution. It is also the rarest: only four other impressions of the completed print are recorded in public collections.

One of the 12 Labors of Hercules, this depiction transforms the hero’s combat with the lion of Nemea into a single figural group rendered in profile and subtended by a continuous curve. This motif was frequently used in ancient Roman coins and cameos. Images of the Labors survived in the Middle Ages as symbols of Virtue overcoming Vice; this combat was often represented because of its simple shape and the clear duality of good versus evil. The subject was newly appreciated in the Renaissance as a conflation of mythological narrative, antique form, and Christian meaning. A monumental marble relief of the struggle located in the Villa Medici, Rome, was widely copied by artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Whether inspired directly by an antique prototype or by a contemporary copy, the present composition was the most developed version of the period, with the principal group ascribed to Raphael (though probably by another artist in his circle) and set within an extensive landscape that relates to Venetian paintings and drawings of the mid-16th century. The only interpretation with such spatial extension and narrative, this woodcut began a vital naturalistic tradition distinct from the motif’s classical legacy. It also had the greatest influence, inspiring Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix.

This impression is also exceptional. The image is complete, including a border. The two blocks are in exact registration, avoiding the shadow of tone that lies outside the contours in many early chiaroscuros. And the printing of both the tone and line blocks is practically uniform, avoiding the weaker patches and pronounced squash of ink that are also common in early examples of the technique. The same is true of condition. The sheet has a faint vertical centerfold and a few printing creases, but it is otherwise unblemished by damage, repair, or later strengthening in pen. This is unusual for an early woodcut and exceptional for a chiaroscuro of the period, distinguishing this impression from all but one, in Vienna’s Albertina Museum.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Two Workmen at Tables, early 1770s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi,Two Workmen at Tables, early 1770s, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
The Ahmanson Foundation,


Seizing rare opportunities as they arose over the last 40 years, the Gallery has been extremely lucky to build the world’s finest collection of Piranesi etchings and illustrated books. Our collection of his outstanding drawings has also come a long way, now numbering 18. Before this acquisition, the Gallery owned 5 Piranesi figure drawings, all much smaller, which offered a greatly varied view of the artist’s output from the 1750s through the 1760s, but we held none from the last decade of Piranesi’s life.

This magnificent late figure drawing was rediscovered last year in a French private collection and acquired by the National Gallery of Art in January 2014 from the Parisian dealer Paul Prouté. It is a superb example of Piranesi’s late style: much more monumental than his early figure drawings; bold and dark in stroke, with the broad lines of a reed pen quickly outlining and shading the figures; and focused on bodily form and gesture rather than psychology. The subject is wonderfully personal, and first appears in his late drawings: Piranesi’s printers working at presses he kept in his own house. Their aprons and rolled-up sleeves are typical of the time and trade. They labor at tables or platforms, undoubtedly on Piranesi’s copperplates laid flat. The man on the right appears to hold a container of thick printing ink in his left hand and wipes ink into the grooves of the copperplate with his right.

Piranesi was frugal. He frequently saved and reused paper by cutting up drawings or artist’s working proofs to use their blank versos as scratch paper, usually for figure drawings. In contrast to his French contemporaries, the pragmatic Piranesi was less concerned about selling working drawings or etching proofs to collectors or connoisseurs. Once even a beautiful drawing had served its purpose, he saw no need to preserve or sell it and instead cut up the drawing and used the back to draw other subjects.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Fragment of a Lion Bas-Relief (verso), 1750s,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, 
The Ahmanson Foundation
, 2014.2.1.b

The verso of Two Workmen at Tables exemplifies Piranesi’s frugality. It appears to be about half of an earlier drawing of a big feline. The deep shadow indicates it was probably drawn from a bas relief. In fact, Piranesi’s cat is taken from an antique relief of a lion discovered at Tivoli in central Italy and installed in the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome. Seeing the complete lion sculpture reveals that Piranesi used this drawing to create similar lions in one of the final etchings for his famous series, Carceri (Prisons). The first 14 prints of Carceri were etched c. 1750, but the final two were added in 1761. This is the only drawing, or fragment of a drawing, known to exist for the final two Carceri.

Interestingly the verso also shows round, brownish spots in all four corners: remains of glue where the figure drawing was mounted to an album page in the late 18th century, thus assuring us it is complete as Piranesi finished it. The ink and paper were well preserved in the album and they are beautifully fresh—as if the drawing had just been removed.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627

Still Life with Peacock Pie

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Juliet and Lee Folger/The Folger Fund, 2013.141.1

In this large―more than four feet across―and magnificent banquet piece, Pieter Claesz (1596/97–1660) demonstrates why he was one of the most important still-life painters in Haarlem. A sumptuous feast is set with some of the most extravagant foods available in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A large peacock pie is festooned with the fowl’s own feathers and gullet—a true delicacy marking only the most special occasions—plus a pink rose placed in its beak. An array of foods surrounds the garnished game, including a cooked bird, olives, lemons, breads, peaches, nuts, and candies. Many of these foods, which Claesz rendered beautifully in pewter platters and Wan-li bowls, were delicacies imported from foreign lands. A small mound of salt, which was itself a precious spice, in a gilded saltcellar adds even more flavor to the meal. Perched at the ready is a berkemeier filled with glistening white wine poured from a pewter pitcher. 

Painted in 1627, the size of this spectacular banquet feast is critical to its impact. Using life-size pictorial elements, the table top becomes extension of the viewer’s space. Claesz subtly enhances the effect with evidence of human presence―food partially eaten, a napkin crumpled―and precisely captured textures: the pebbly lemon peel cascading from the plate, the shining pewter pitcher, the tablecloth’s crisp folds. He harmonized and animated the scene with subtle shadows and delicate touches of light, as in the light passing through the glass of wine and reflecting on the cloth. This banquet scene was purchased through the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.

Still Life with Peacock Pie is on view on the Main Floor of the West Building in Gallery 50.

A related work in the collection is:

Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, Willem Claesz Heda, 1635. Heda and Pieter Claesz were the most important still-life painters in Haarlem.

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890)

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Vincent van Gogh
(1853–1890) is one of the most popular and universally recognized artists of all time. A remarkably prolific artist, he produced approximately 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings during a brief career spanning a mere decade. Following a succession of jobs, including a position as an art dealer, he moved in 1880 to the Borinage region of Belgium to work as a lay missionary among the miners. It was there that he decided to become an artist. Largely self-trained, in 1886 he moved to Paris, where he spent three months in the studio of the painter Fernand Cormon. He also made the acquaintance of a number of avant-garde artists including Paul Gauguin. Following two fruitful but emotionally draining years, he left Paris and moved to Arles, a town in southern France. Deeply inspired by the sun-drenched landscape and the picturesque character of the region and its inhabitants, Van Gogh developed what would become his signature style, marked by lush impasto, energetic brushwork, and vibrant color. In May 1889, the emotionally troubled artist voluntarily admitted himself as a patient at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in nearby Saint-Rémy, where he remained for a year. In May 1890, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he stayed until he took his own life two months later.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers was painted during these final months in Auvers. In this village just north of Paris, Van Gogh painted the Romanesque church, the town hall, and some of the picturesque thatched-roof houses. As he did in the countryside surrounding Arles and Saint-Rémy, he also painted more or less “pure” landscapes. This work is indeed singular in that there is no legible motif beyond the grassy field, road, and sky, no animals or figures, but instead lush flora whipped up by the wind.  Two-thirds of the composition consists of the field in a rich range of greens and blues, punctuated by outbursts of yellow flowers. The artist wrote of his return to northern France as a kind of homecoming, a peaceful restoration in which the vibrant, hot colors of the south were replaced by cool, gentle hues in green and blue. Van Gogh’s energetic strokes describe the movement of grassy stalks in the breeze, their patterned undulations creating a woven integral form anchored at the right by a juncture of field, road, and sky. There the turbulent vibrations are held in place, just barely. Over the scene the clouds whip around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, Van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in broad calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the textured surface of Van Gogh’s best-loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, rich color, Van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is a marvelous complement to the Gallery’s Van Gogh collection. The ninth oil painting by the artist to come to the Gallery, it along with Girl in White represents Van Gogh’s wildly prolific Auvers period. It  hangs in the Gallery’s West Building (M-83 gallery) with several works from Provence, including La Mousmé and Farmhouse in Provence, as well as from his stay at Saint-Rémy, where he painted Roses and his glowering Self-Portrait. This powerful landscape relates perhaps even more strongly to three of the Gallery’s pen and ink drawings by Van Gogh, all from 1888—Harvest, The Harvest—The Plain of La Crau, and Ploughman in the Fields near Arles—in the rhythmic weave of the marks made to describe his sense of nature’s unifying energy.

The painting spent its early life in Germany, represented about 1905 by the brilliant modern art dealer Paul Cassirer and moving to Britain with F. H. Herrmann in 1936–37. Herrmann sold it through the Carstairs Gallery in New York to Paul Mellon in December 1955. It has remained in Mr. and Mrs. Mellon’s home in Virginia until now, with the exception of an exhibition devoted to their collection and that of Paul’s sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, at the National Gallery in 1966. Mrs. Mellon donated the painting to the Gallery in 2013.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623


Gerrit van Honthorst,The Concert, 1623, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Florian Carr Fund
, 2013.38.1

Gerrit van Honthorst
’s The Concert depicts a group of festively attired singers and musicians who bend forward with glowing enthusiasm to follow the musical scores laid out on a large, tapestry-covered table. Their joyous song fills the composition and—as close as the musicians are to the front of the picture plane—seems to pour out into our space. Indeed, standing behind the group assembled at the table is a smiling young man dressed in lavender and holding a glass aloft as he silences us so that we can fully enjoy the musicians’ sonorous tones.

Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) executed this remarkable painting in 1623, shortly after he had returned to his native Utrecht from a prolonged stay in Rome where he had become transfixed by the revolutionary style of Caravaggio. Bright colors, strong chiaroscuro effects, and sensuous figures dressed in exotic costumes were all featured in Caravaggism, and nowhere are these pictorial elements expressed with more verve and assurance than in this masterpiece. With such works, Honthorst, along with his slightly older contemporary from Utrecht, Hendrick ter Brugghen, helped spread Caravaggism in the Netherlands, where it had a major impact on subsequent Dutch artistic traditions.

This recent acquisition, which measures over four by six feet, brings to the Gallery one of the most remarkable discoveries in Dutch art in many years. This masterpiece is not only visually exciting but also historically important: it was listed in an inventory of the collection of the Prince of Orange, Frederick Hendrik, in 1632. The Concert remained in the collection of the house of Orange until Napoleon’s troops seized it from the Dutch king Willem V in 1795 and took it to France. The Concert entered a French private collection and remained there, unknown to the art-historical community, until very recently.

This painting’s discovery has necessitated a reconsideration of the place Honthorst occupied in the artistic firmament of his day. Such a large work was undoubtedly commissioned, indicating that his artistic genius was widely recognized, most importantly at the Dutch court in The Hague, upon his return to Utrecht. In the 1620s and 1630s the Princes of Orange, intent upon raising the international status of the Dutch court, tried to develop an artistic and cultural ambience comparable to that of other European courts. The Concert, which represented the most modern of the modern, demonstrated that the Dutch court was well acquainted with international trends, and the Prince of Orange proudly hung it above a mantel in his private apartment in the palace, Noordeinde.

Until recently, the influence of Caravaggio on the art of northern Europe had not been represented in the Gallery's otherwise rich collection of Dutch art. The acquisition in 2009 of Hendrick ter Brugghen's Bagpipe Player, 1624, was a first step in addressing this gap. Together with the Gallery's Italian, French, and Spanish Caravaggist paintings, the works by these two Dutch masters convey the enormous impact of Caravaggio's style throughout Europe in the 17th century.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, View of Medinet El-Fayoum, c. 1868–1870


Jean-Léon Gérôme, View of Medinet El-Fayoum, c. 1868–1870, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Chester Dale Fund
, 2013.62.1

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) was the most publicly honored and financially successful French artist of the second half of the 19th century. His Orientalist scenes were inspired by the many voyages he undertook to Egypt, North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, and the Holy Land over the course of his career. In View of Medinet El-Fayoum, c. 1868–1870, Gérôme depicts the oldest city in Egypt, located some 80 miles southwest of Cairo. Unlike many Orientalist pictures of the day—fantasies constructed in a Parisian artist’s studio—this painting is informed by empirical records, while maintaining a sense of the awe and mystery Egypt inspired in French visitors.

While the Gallery owns a drawing and two prints by Gérôme, View of Medinet El-Fayoum is the first painting by the artist to enter the collection. Purchased with the Chester Dale Fund, it joins a small group of Orientalist pictures in the West Building’s recently renovated 19th-century French galleries, including Delacroix’s Arabs Skirmishing (1862), Renoir’s Odalisque (1870), Benjamin Constant’s Favorite of the Emir (1879), and Matisse’s Odalisque (1923).

Hans Haacke, Condensation Wall, 1963–1966/2013


Hans Haacke, Condensation Wall, 1963–1966/2013, Plexiglas and distilled water, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Gift of the Collectors Committee © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS). 2013.44.1

The Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art recently made possible the acquisition of Condensation Wall (1963–1966/2013) by Hans Haacke (b. 1936), a breakthrough kinetic work from the artist's early career. Now on view in the East Building Concourse, this sculpture introduces an important example of kinetic art into the collection, joining works by Alexander Calder, Harry Bertoia, and George Rickey. It also has strong resonances with the Gallery's holdings of minimal art, in particular Larry Bell's Chrome and Glass Construction (1965), Anne Truitt's Knight's Heritage (1963), and Tony Smith's Die (model 1962, fabricated 1968).

Reflecting Haacke's involvement with the West German-based group Zero, Condensation Wall is one of Haacke’s breakthrough works—part of a set of sculptures, including Condensation Cube and Condensation Floor, that combine geometric shapes and organic materials to reveal physico-dynamical processes. Contemporaneous with minimal sculpture, Haacke's work transforms the boxlike forms and industrial fabrication of artists like Donald Judd and Larry Bell into a micro-environment contingent with its surroundings: depending on the ambient temperature, the water inside collects and "rains." The transparent box allows the viewer to perceive this natural process, the gallery in which the works are displayed, and the surrounding works all at once.

Born in Cologne, Haacke is one of the leading figures of conceptual art and post-minimalism, and one of the most important political artists working today. After studying in Kassel and Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1965. There he befriended the emerging circle of minimalist artists including Eva Hesse and Carl Andre, and participated in the seminal conceptual exhibitions When Attitudes Become Form (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969), and Information (Museum of Modern Art, 1970).

Rineke Dijkstra, I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009


Rineke Dijkstra, Dutch, born 1959, I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009, 3 channel HD video installation with sound, 12 minutes, looped, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased with funds donated by Joseph M. Cohen and Gift of the Collectors Committee, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris, 2013.138.1

The Gallery’s first work by the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959), a three-channel HD video installation with sound, is on view through September 2, 2013 in the West Building Project Room (on the Ground Floor adjacent to the West Building Lecture Hall). Its purchase was made possible by Joseph M. Cohen and the Collectors Committee.

For two decades, Dijkstra has been celebrated for her penetrating portraits that strive to reveal, as she has said, “the specialness of the ordinary.” While she is acclaimed for her large-scale photographs that express emotional depth and complexity, she has also made videos since the mid-1990s. The most accomplished of these is I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman) (2009).

The work consists of three adjacent screens across which viewers see nine British boys and girls, all about 11 years old, wearing Catholic school uniforms and standing before a white background. They have been asked to speak about a painting that is never shown or identified in the video: Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Modern). They begin by slowly describing the painting, yet their remarks quickly escalate as their imaginations are sparked: “Maybe her stepmum was like…evil; maybe nobody liked her”; “Maybe that’s a million-pound bill and she can’t pay it.”

With the naïveté of youth and the safety of a group of friends, the children are unconcerned with providing the “right” answers and instead simply express their ideas. Thus, the video achieves the same level of startling authenticity that Dijkstra captures in her still photographs.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man)

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Patrons' Permanent Fund and Gift of the Artist
© Glenn Ligon, 2012.109.1

Glenn Ligon was born in the Bronx in 1960, attended the Walden School in New York on a scholarship, and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1982. He participated in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program in 1985, known at that time for its language-based approach. Ligon is best known for intertextual works that re-present American history and literature, in particular narratives of slavery and civil rights, for contemporary audiences. His work engages a powerful mix of racial and gender-oriented struggles for the self, leading viewers to reconsider problems inherent in representation.

Untitled (I Am a Man) is just such a representation—a signifier—of the actual signs carried by 1,300 striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis, made famous in Ernest Withers' 1968 photographs. Prompted by the wrongful deaths of two coworkers from faulty equipment, the strikers marched to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions. They took up the slogan "I Am a Man" as a variant on the first line of Ralph Ellison's prologue to Invisible Man, "I am an invisible man." By deleting the word "invisible," the Memphis strikers asserted their presence, making themselves visible in standing up for their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to address the striking workers; the next day, he was assassinated.

This painting is Ligon's most important and iconic work. As the first object in which he used a selected text, Untitled (I Am a Man) is his breakthrough. He took pains to differentiate the painting from the original signs, avoiding a one-to-one relationship by reorganizing the line breaks. And while he preserved the original black-on-white of the sign, his choice to paint the black letters in eye-catching enamel calls attention to a black figure ("Man") as a text that replaces the human form in figurative painting. Throughout his career, Ligon has used "blackness" as a trope for both personal and collective experience. As Ligon has said (paraphrasing Muhammed Ali), "It's not about me. It's about we." The deliberately rough surface of the painting, which Ligon later documented by having a condition report made as an ancillary work of art, seems to index the scars and struggles of the work's great subject.

Untitled (I Am a Man) is the Gallery's first painting by Ligon and complements a suite of etchings and a print portfolio.

Robert Adams, Kerstin enjoying the wind. East of Keota, Colorado, 1969

Kerstin enjoying the wind

Robert Adams, Kerstin enjoying the wind. East of Keota, Colorado, 1969, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Robert and Kerstin Adams
, 2012.70.163

For more than 40 years, the distinguished photographer Robert Adams has recorded the changing American landscape, revealing both its sublime beauty and its wanton destruction. Like his 19th-century predecessors, such as Timothy O'Sullivan, he has chronicled the ongoing settlement of the American West, especially Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. Yet unlike those earlier photographers, he has recorded the freeways, strip malls, parking lots, billboards, and tract houses that have utterly transformed the landscape in the last 50 years, as well as the abandoned orange groves of Southern California and the despoiled forests of the Northwest. In addition, he has turned his camera on the citizens of this New West, photographing young children who grew up in the shadow of nuclear weapons plants, as well as parents and grandparents who were often isolated from one another and nature itself by the very modern conveniences they coveted.

Yet Adams' work is no diatribe and often records the beauty that remains—indeed, refuses to die—in the magnificent light of the high plains, for example, or the graceful form of the earth itself. He is convinced, as he wrote in 1974, that "all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty." Combining hope and despair, joy and grief, his lucid but passionate photographs are profound and provocative records of this time and place.

Born in New Jersey, raised in Wisconsin and Colorado, Adams received a PhD in English literature and turned to photography in 1963, at the age of 26. With encouragement from the renowned curator John Szarkowski, Adams abandoned his career as an English professor in 1970 and devoted himself to photography. A gifted writer with a deep fascination for books of photographs, Adams first achieved acclaim in 1974 with the publication of The New West: Landscapes along the Colorado Front Range, one of the first books of photographs to present a more critical view of the American West. This book was soon followed by 15 more, most recently Questions for an Overcast Day (2009). In addition to numerous exhibitions at major museums around the world, Adams has been honored with many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Hasselblad Award for Distinguished Photographer, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

Recently, the Gallery acquired 169 photographs by Adams. This collection is truly exceptional and unique, for the artist himself carefully selected it to complement the 25 works by him already in the Gallery's collection. Together they represent what he considers to be his most important accomplishments. The new acquisition includes key photographs from each of his 16 books, as well as 16 other photographs from throughout his career. A modest man with deeply held convictions, Adams believes "these photographs can tell Americans something they might want to know about their country."

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