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Collection Highlights-American Sign Langugage

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This video introduces John Russell Pope’s design for the West Building Rotunda, which opened to the public on March 17, 1941 with a ceremony led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The museum’s coffered dome and columns were inspired by the ancient Roman Pantheon. This video is the first of 27 that introduce the works of art featured on the Director’s Tour in American Sign Language.

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Manet’s tableau reflects on the isolated nature of modern life in this depiction of a group of disparate people. The artist sympathized with the displaced and marginalized poor population, a result of the dramatic redesigning of the Paris that created the now-familiar wide, tree-lined boulevards and neoclassical buildings.

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Two of Monet’s 30 renderings of the Rouen Cathedral are in the NGA collection. The artist ensured a good view of his subject by renting a second-story room in the hotel across the street from the church as a temporary studio. Throughout the day, he studied the effects of light and shade on the façade and captured them on canvas. Though these look like they might have been painted quickly, conservators have discovered that the paint dried in between layers, which means that Monet worked on the canvases slowly, over a long period of time.

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Gauguin’s unnerving Self-Portrait is painted on a dining room cupboard door from an inn in the Breton hamlet Le Pouldu in northwest France. The viewer must decide whether this disembodied head floating against a field of crimson and warm yellow represents Gauguin as Christ with a halo or is Satan holding the snake that tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apples, hanging directly above.

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This is the largest of four paintings Cézanne made of this model, named Michelangelo di Rosa, created when the artist was living in Paris. While the subject of a figure posed in classic contrapposto, in which the body twists, draws from a long artistic tradition, the flattened space of the room, the nearly abstract shapes of the background, and Cézanne’s use of color are innovations that drew on and shaped current artistic debates of the day.

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Van Gogh created at least 36 self-portraits. This was one of the last he completed in his decade-long career and the first he painted after suffering a severe breakdown in 1889. Van Gogh shows himself holding his painting tools. It appears that the work was completed in one sitting.

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Leonardo’s subtly painted portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci was probably commissioned on the occasion of her engagement at age 16 to Luigi Niccolini. A motto painted on the reverse—VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT (“Beauty adorns virtue”)—suggests that the young woman’s chastity was as pristine as her flawless complexion.

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The only artist to surpass the Renaissance painter Bellini’s reputation in Venice was his pupil and collaborator on this painting: Titian. This lively composition, which shows a scene about to erupt with sound and action, was painted for Duke Alfonso d’Este and illustrates Ovid’s poem “The Feasts” (Fasti). The Duke’s guests would have delighted in identifying the classical source and untangling the identities of the dozen gods, goddesses, and mythological beings.

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The round format of this painting, called a tondo, was popular in Florence, where Raphael lived and learned from fellow masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo from 1504 to 1508. However, this painting represents a turning point. The idealized figures, saturated yet delicate hues, and classical landscape show a shift in style from his intimate Madonnas painted in Florence to a more majestic style developed in Rome after 1508.

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Ranuccio Farnese’s serious expression and formal costume contrast with his fresh-faced youthfulness. The work was painted when the twelve-year-old Farnese was sent by his grandfather, Pope Paul III, to become prior, or head of house, of a property belonging to the elite Knights of Malta, a religious order. He wears the Maltese cross on his robe. Ranuccio went on to craft an illustrious ecclesiastical career. Titian offers hints of the sitter’s future success with the resolute set of the boy’s shoulders and surprising sense of possession for one so young.

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This is El Greco’s only painting of a mythological scene. Laocoön, a priest in the city of Troy, warned his countrymen not to accept the gift of the Trojan horse, which concealed enemy Greek soldiers. The gods punished him by sending serpents to strangle him and his sons. El Greco set the Greek myth against his adopted Spanish city of Toledo, which appears in other paintings by the artist. The highly expressive color and energetic brush strokes are also hallmarks of El Greco’s highly individual style.

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The artist brings a highly naturalistic style to this depiction of a mystical moment. The dim interior, illuminated only by a single candle flame, echoes the solemnity of Mary Magdalen’s expression. The candle dramatically highlights the figure’s gaze into the mirror as well as the backlit skull, which she touches lightly. The skull, mirror, and candle flame symbolize the transience of life and the Magdalen’s rejection of a life of luxury to follow Christ.

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This painting presents Grünewald’s empathetic portrayal of Christ’s pain and suffering in addition to his triumphs. The dramatic poses of the figures surrounding the cross, as well as the intense colors, emphasize the anguish of the moment. Grünewald also drew on the biblical accounts of this scene, in which Saint Luke described a “darkness over all the earth” at the time of Christ’s passing, by depicting a scene plunged into darkness by a solar eclipse.

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The tall narrow format of this painting suggests that this would have been the left wing of a triptych. Van Eyck emphasizes the meaning of the annunciation, the moment when Mary learns of the impending birth of Christ from the angel Gabriel, by including symbolic references to the Old Testament even as this story marks the start of the New Testament. For example, the floor tiles illustrate the stories of David and Goliath as well as Samson destroying the Philistine temple. Both foreshadow events of Christ’s life and the salvation of humankind.

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This panel, which might have been one portion of a triptych, illustrates the ars moriendi, or the “Art of Dying,” a popular theme at this time. Death, in the form of a skeleton, comes to claim a miser’s soul in his last moments. Despite the urging of an angel, who places his hand protectively on the dying man’s shoulder, he may be unable to resist the bag of gold and other worldly treasures proffered by the demons scattered throughout the room.

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This painting illustrates the power of Daniel’s faith to protect him from the restless, roaring lions. During the Protestant Reformation, this biblical tale about the trials of an early Christian martyr was used by the Catholic Church to represent perseverance through persecution. Rubens captures the restrained yet menacing energy of the oversized lions with their dynamic poses and lifelike appearance. The strong upward diagonal created by Daniel’s body and red garment indicate the drama of the moment of Daniel’s salvation as the rock sealing the cavernous prison is rolled away.

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Rembrandt painted, drew, and etched dozens of self-portraits over his lifetime. Together, his self-portraits form an extended study of a wide range of human emotions and states of mind. This work was painted shortly after the artist had declared bankruptcy and experienced other hardships. It is tempting to discern an aura of melancholy in the serious expression, but the steady gaze and expressive handling of the paint emphasizing the eyes lends a sense of dignity and strength to the sitter.

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Vermeer echoes the stillness of the instrument held lightly in the woman’s hands with a masterful balance of color, light, and shade throughout the composition. The scene is rendered with acute attention to detail and naturalism but also contains an allegorical subtext. The figure’s action of balancing the scales and her placement in front of a painting depicting the Last Judgment reminds the viewer to live a temperate and virtuous life.

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Goya shows the marchesa dressed in the height of fashion with a wasp-waisted corset and the adoption of the “shepherdess” style popularized by Marie Antoinette. Her full skirt and broad-brimmed straw hat were also influenced by foreign fashions popular within Spain. The carnation she holds and the roses tucked into her skirt suggest that this portrait was probably painted on the occasion of her first marriage.

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Napoleon has risen from his desk after a long night’s work, his labors indicated by the nearly spent candle. The chair being pushed back has caused the carpet to bunch up and he has not taken the time to smooth his tousled hair or wrinkled leggings. Nevertheless Napoleon is dressed in and surrounded by symbols of his power, from his military uniform with sword laid across his chair to the rolled up Napoleonic Code and French royal fleurs-de-lys pattern on the chair’s cushion and arms.

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The big sky, lush green groves, and languidly grazing cows immediately evoke the calm tranquility of a pastoral landscape. Constable was born and raised in Suffolk, a county near Essex northeast of London, where he developed an attachment to the rural countryside. The owner of Wivenhoe Park, who was also a close friend of the artist’s father, commissioned this painting.

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Turner’s atmospheric harbor view blends the heavy, thick smoke coming from the fiery braziers with an evocative, romantic seascape. The men heave coals onto the sailing ships that line the shore in a forest of prickly masts. The moon reflects on the still water so brightly that that the viewer momentarily wonders whether the scene is illuminated by the afternoon sun.

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Cole’s epic four-part series Voyage of Life weaves the theme of the four ages of man with the four seasons and the four times of day. It also touches on the Christian doctrine of resurrection. The painting shows a man who, stripped of his possessions, turns finally to prayer in a time of turbulence and uncertainty. Cole wrote of this painting that the forms in the sky represented suicide, intemperance, and murder. The man’s guardian angel shining from the upper corner gives hope for salvation.

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This painting depicts the true story of the orphaned Brooks Watson, who, at fourteen years old, was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Watson was saved, but not before losing his right foot. He went on to enjoy a successful career as a merchant and politician, and proudly recounted his ordeal. Watson commissioned Copley to paint the work for a London orphanage, where it was intended to represent strength through adversity for an audience who could identify with Watson’s background.

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Saint-Gaudens’s memorial commemorates the sacrifice of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment to fight for the North in the Civil War. Half of the 600 men in the regiment were killed, captured, or missing after their assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. News of their bravery was spread immediately by both Union and Confederate troops. Saint-Gaudens completely reimagined the traditional equestrian monument by transforming the usual man on a horse into this frieze, which commemorates the soldiers as well as their leader, who was the first to die.

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Four boys perch on the high side of a steeply heeling catboat buffeted by choppy bottle-green water. The boat’s home port, Gloucester, is lettered on the stern. Homer painted this scene during a postwar period during which many Americans longed for representations of a more innocent time. The painting enjoyed immediate popularity when exhibited in the country’s centennial year of 1876. Homer would turn increasingly to painting sea and seaside scenes, especially around Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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Whistler knew that his statement about this work, “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain,” was a provocation to viewers. A portrait of his mistress Joanna Hiffernan posed in an informal housedress with flowing hair, an impassive expression, and standing on a white bearskin rug, told Victorians perhaps more than they wished to know about Hiffernan’s worldiness, yet is a tour de force of painted texture and a study of white.