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2015 Acquisition Highlights

A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer

Jacob Ochtervelt, A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, 1663
The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund, 2015 (2015.68.1)
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A Nurse and a Child in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse, signed and dated 1663, represents Jacob Ochtervelt at his artistic height. It depicts a young boy about five years old offering alms to a family of beggars. The household’s maid tenderly holds his hand while his parents, visible through the open doorway, proudly observe their son’s charity—a virtue taught in the home and of great importance to the Dutch. The beggar boy sets his foot cautiously on the hall floor to receive a coin while his mother holds a nursing infant to her breast. Because the patrician boy is still so young he wears his hair in long curls and is outfitted in a freshly ironed white dress, as was common for boys until the age of around seven.  Ochtervelt masterfully contrasts the privileged world of the aristocratic family with the uncertainties of the life of the poor by differentiating the dark, ragged clothing of the beggars with the splendid marble hallway and luminous attire of the house’s inhabitants.

Throughout his career, Ochtervelt focused on patrician life and leisure—men and women reading and writing letters, eating and drinking, and making music. However, his most innovative scenes were those depicting the interactions between the upper and lower classes at the threshold of an elegant townhouse. These are known as “voorhuis” (front hall) scenes. A Nurse and a Child in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse is one of his most elegant voorhuis paintings, characterized by Ochtervelt’s clarity of light and of color, and by his sympathetic rendering of people from all social classes. A native of Rotterdam, Ochtervelt spent the majority of his successful career in that great port city before moving to Amsterdam in 1674, where he lived until his death.

The Jolly Flatboatmen

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846
Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2015 (2015.18.1)
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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 Flatboatmennow becomes the cornerstone of that group and one of the most significant paintings in the Gallery’s collection of 19th-century American paintings.

The Jolly Flatboatmen

Idris Khan, Every...Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, 2004
Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon in honor of Sarah Greenough on the occasion of the
25th Anniversary of the founding of the Department of Photographs at the
National Gallery of Art, 2015 (2015.169.1)
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Appropriating his images from art, music, literature, and popular culture, the British artist Idris Khan creates densely layered photographs that explore the nature of memory, experience, and time. Using digital technology, he overlays multiple pictures of various objects—from paintings and musical scores to religious texts and postcards of London—that are most often experienced over time. Erasing some details and highlighting others, he constructs pictures that seek to reveal not the specificity of his subjects but, as he says, their fundamental essence. Although he has explored a wide range of subjects, he first looked to photography’s own history, exploring the cultural and experiential resonance of iconic pictures by the celebrated masters Bernd and Hilla Becher.

For more than forty years starting in the late 1950s, these highly influential German-born artists photographed industrial architecture of the late modern era that was rapidly disappearing—water towers, coal bunkers, and blast furnaces, for example, as well as gas tanks. Banishing people from their compositions, they always recorded the buildings under gray skies, head-on, and from a slightly elevated perspective so that the structures seemed to rise above their surroundings. When the Bechers exhibited their cool, deadpan, documentary-style photographs, they grouped them into grids of six, nine, twelve, or even fifteen pictures, which they called “typologies,” so that viewers could note both the great diversity and similarities of their subjects.

In Every…Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, Khan superimposed all of their photographs of gasholders on top of another, adjusting the contrast and opacity so that each layer is seen and adds to the whole. Khan’s picture diminishes the rigid structuralism and formalism of the gasholders as seen in the Bechers’ photographs and transforms them into fractured, ghostly, and mysterious objects that pulsate with energy and a sense of discovery. Conveying the elusiveness and changeability of memory, Khan’s evocative pictures encapsulate how we see not with our eyes but with our mind.

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