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Acquisition Highlights

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In the 75 years of its existence the National Gallery of Art has amassed one of the world’s most significant collections of European and American masterworks of paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and photographs. From a beginning with a selection of 126 paintings and 26 sculptures given by the Gallery’s founder Andrew W. Mellon, the collection has grown to more than 145,000 works today.

The National Gallery of Art’s mission is to preserve, collect, exhibit, and foster understanding of works of art, and the permanent collection is the very core of that mission. The Gallery’s treasures come from many diverse times and places of origin and each work of art in the permanent collection is a private donation, acquired either directly or with contributed funds. Listed below are some of the most important recent additions to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art.

2017 Acquisition Highlights

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Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, Comte Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe – 2017.116.1
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Pierre-Jean David d’Angers was one of the most renowned sculptors of the romantic era. His public monuments and portraits of intellectuals and political figures capture the charged spirit of the epoch like no others. His larger-than-life Comte Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, carved in 1832, stands at the summit of his production. The bust was exhibited at the Salon of 1833, after which it passed to the sitter, in whose family it has remained until recently. Carved from crystalline marble mined in the Pyrenees, the bust exhibits an extraordinary sensitivity to the material. The asymmetrical features—slanting creases in the furrowed brow, cocked right eyebrow, and pull of skin to the right under the chin—are characteristics David d’Angers emphasized to capture the subject’s variable temperament. Although David d’Angers typically entrusted his carving to specialists, or practiciens, the many subtleties in the execution testify to his direct work at least on the defining touches.

Born to working-class parents in Angers, the artist moved to Paris in 1808 to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1810, he won second prize in the Prix de Rome competition with an entry that caught the attention of Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s principal painter. David invited the young sculptor to train in his studio, where David d’Angers learned to practice the unique blend of classicism and sharp naturalism that became a hallmark of his style. He called himself David d’Angers to prevent confusion with his celebrated mentor and to give thanks to his hometown, which helped fund his education. After four years in Rome, David d’Angers returned to Paris in 1816 and won several prestigious commissions for public monuments, including the bas-reliefs for the pediment of the Panthéon (1830–1837), which solidified his position as the leading sculptor in Paris.

David d’Angers excelled at portraits. He depicted many of the most important figures in contemporary art and politics, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Victor Hugo, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Influenced by the theory of phrenology, which held that a person’s appearance reflected emotional and intellectual characteristics, he frequently adjusted his likenesses in order to emphasize those expressive characteristics he associated with his sitters.

The comte Boulay de la Meurthe is the type of charismatic individual to whom David d’Angers was especially drawn to depict. Born in the region of Les Vosges in 1761, the comte Boulay de la Meurthe practiced law in Paris. His stance against the Directory (the French Revolutionary government that held power between November 1795 and November 1799) won him the admiration of Napoleon, who awarded him the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur and invited him to serve on his privy council. He was later appointed president of the commission responsible for drafting France’s new constitution and the body of laws otherwise known as the Napoleonic Code. In retirement, he wrote his memoirs as well as two books on English history.

Comte Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe has found a natural home on the main floor of the West Building opposite Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon. The Gallery is deeply indebted to Buffy Cafritz; her son and daughter-in-law, Sandy and Helen Wilkes; and the Buffy and William Cafritz Family Sculpture Fund for supporting the acquisition. Many others helped bring the marvelous bust to Washington through their contributions to the Patrons’ Permanent Fund.

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Morris Louis, Sub-Marine – 2017.115.1
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Born in Baltimore in 1912, Morris Louis Bernstein (he dropped the last name when he was in his twenties) studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art before moving to New York City in 1936. There he participated, along with Jackson Pollock, in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, an important painting studio run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Louis returned to Maryland in the mid-1940s, got married, and set up a small studio in his Silver Spring home.

In 1953, Louis made a now-famous visit, along with artist Kenneth Noland, critic Clement Greenberg, and others, to Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio to see her breakthrough painting Mountains and Sea of 1952 (on long-term loan to the Gallery from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation). Shortly after, Louis developed his signature technique of staining thinned paint into raw canvas and destroyed much of his previous output.

Sub-Marine (1948) is therefore a rare and important milestone in the career of an artist who went on to become a leading figure in postwar painting and one of the most lyrical artists of the so-called Washington Color School. Its whiplash lines and washed colors testify to the influence of Arshile Gorky, while the biomorphic shapes recall the work of Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. And yet Louis’s originality is also clear; the way that the yellow forms flow across the canvas in rhyming waves foreshadows the parallel bands and rivulets, sometimes straight but more often curved, of his mature work. Shown in Baltimore in 1949, Sub-Marine won a fifty-dollar prize from a jury that included curator James Johnson Sweeney and artist Jack Tworkov.

Thanks to the generosity of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, the painting (which had been owned and cherished by a single family for over sixty years) now joins six others by Louis in the collection, including an even earlier work, Country House (1938), recently acquired from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Sub-Marine thus serves as a missing link in the story of Louis’s development from figuration to abstraction. It also finds a rich context in permanent collection works from the early 1940s by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and others. Taken together, these paintings demonstrate the efforts of ambitious American painters born in the early years of the twentieth century to transcend European surrealism and abstraction and arrive at original styles that would transform modern art.

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Stuart Davis, Torso and Head of Two Figures – 2017.114.1
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Stuart Davis was unique among American modernists, combining a personal brand of European cubism with an American sensibility to produce something highly original. Born in Philadelphia and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, Davis—both of whose parents were artists—grew up knowing some of the most important American realists of the period: William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn. He left high school in 1910 to take classes with Henri in New York City, and three years later was among the youngest participants in the legendary Armory Show. The event proved pivotal, introducing Davis to advanced European art and setting him on the path to modernism. “The Armory Show was the greatest shock to me,” he later stated. “All my immediately subsequent efforts went toward incorporating Armory Show ideas into my work.”

Modernist ideas fuel Torso and Head of Two Figures—a showcase in contrasts, not just between abstraction and realism but also between black and white, solid and void, organic and inorganic, surface and depth. The drawing, resembling more of a design for a machine than a representation of a human figure (or figures), takes its title from an inscription by the artist at the top of the sheet reading “Torso + head of 2 figures.” Do the forms at the base—the irregular pentagon at left and the trapezoid at right—represent the bottom halves of two figures? Could the upright, hollowed-out form above them be a torso, and the small quadrilateral at its peak be a head? Whatever the case, the point is not to diligently trace the drawing’s source but to recognize that, despite being an abstraction, its roots lie in realism. The four fully abstract paintings from Davis’s celebrated Egg Beater series of the same period were similarly rooted in realism, in their case a still life of an egg beater, a rubber glove, and an electric fan.

The mechanical underpinnings of Torso and Head of Two Figures and its emphasis on geometric forms bring to mind both the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky, whose works Davis knew and admired, and Louis Lozowick, an American artist born in the Ukraine whose Machine Ornament drawings from the 1920s bear a striking resemblance. This new acquisition will be on display in Machine Age Modernism, a gallery of drawings, prints, and photographs on the ground floor of the East Building through the end of May 2018.

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Juan Gris, Glass and Checkerboard – 2017.122.1
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Relatively little is known about this cubist masterpiece, with a modest size that belies its power and complexity. Juan Gris probably painted it in early 1917, given its close relationship to works by the artist that are securely dated. It was acquired in New York City in the 1950s by the collector and real estate developer Ian Woodner—the same person whose name graces the magnificent collection of more than 150 drawings that have resided at the National Gallery since shortly after his death in 1990 thanks to the exceptional generosity of his two daughters, Dian and Andrea. This spirit of philanthropy continues with Glass and Checkerboard, a painting that Dian Woodner lived with for many years and has recently donated to the nation.

Along with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger, Gris was one of the quartet of cubist pioneers that the brilliant German dealer and critic Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler agreed to represent in his gallery. Like Picasso, Gris was a Spaniard who moved to Paris to make his career at the center of the art world. Unlike Picasso, he was quiet and studious—not the passionate, mercurial inventor in many media but the patient researcher and craftsman in collage and paint.

What we see here, as in most cubist paintings, are hints of representation caught in a seismic movement of shifting planes and jostling, interlocking shapes. At lower right, two of Gris’s favorite motifs, a glass and a checkerboard, can be made out. There is the suggestion of a tabletop, some strong shadows, and a wine bottle floating at upper left. It might be more appropriate to call the whole thing a fugue in colors and shapes rather than a still life. Compared to Fantômas (1915), a slightly earlier painting by Gris in the collection, Glass and Checkerboard is both more restrained and more abstract. In Fantômas, viewers once again find a checkered pattern and a glass, but many other things as well, such as a pipe, fruit, a newspaper, and the cheap detective novel of the title, all defined by fragments of line and bursts of color.

With Glass and Checkerboard, Gris entered a more sober, almost classical phase, in which compositional interest trumped individual incident. In another two years, recognizable objects (including harlequins, books, and guitars) would flood back into Gris’s work, heralding a final, neoclassical phase before the artist’s death at age forty. Seen in retrospect, the abstract canvases of 1917, including Glass and Checkerboard, represent a daring, satisfying peak in a career that ended too soon.

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Pinturicchio, Head of a Youth Looking Up – 2017.111.1
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The addition of an Italian Renaissance drawing to the National Gallery’s collection is always a cause for celebration. When the new acquisition is of such fine quality and as well preserved as the Head of a Youth Looking Up, and the artist is of such considerable note as Pinturicchio, however, it instantly becomes a prize of the first order.

Most striking in this sheet is the richly varied handling of the white highlighting in combination with delicate threads of metalpoint and smooth strokes of light-brown wash on gray-prepared paper. The white is applied densely to the face in short, quick, repetitive touches that emphasize the glint of the globular eyes, bring out the sheen of the flesh, and suggest an intense light source, such as the sun. In the hair, by contrast, the brushstrokes are longer and more sinuous, giving shape and movement to the locks that frame the boy’s face and curl on his shoulders. Somewhat surprisingly the boy’s jacket is defined almost entirely, but very effectively, by the whites that suggest the shape of the collar, the line of the front flap, and the array of buttons that hold it closed.

As is often the case with fifteenth-century drawings, the attribution of this one has followed a somewhat convoluted course, though its origins in Umbria have always been properly recognized. In the eighteenth century, it was thought to be a self-portrait by Raphael, an exalted but untenable attribution. At other times since the study has been given to Perugino, with whom Pinturicchio closely collaborated; to an anonymous Umbrian artist working around 1490; and with varying degrees of certainty to Pinturicchio himself. The question marks most recently associated with that attribution stemmed from the fact that by the 1980s doubts were attached to the authenticity of every drawing that had previously been assigned to Pinturicchio, and the particular characteristics of his draftsmanship were therefore in question. Nevertheless, as scholarship has evolved, the drawing has come to be accepted as a signal work by Pinturicchio.

This sensitive drawing formerly belonged to Ian Woodner, one of the twentieth century’s preeminent collectors of old master drawings, and comes to the National Gallery as the gift of his daughter Dian Woodner. It joins here the core of the Woodner Collection, which includes a significant number of outstanding Renaissance drawings. Dian and her sister, Andrea, have given over 140 drawings from their father’s collection to the Gallery since 1991, seeking in this way to preserve and honor their father’s achievement as a collector.

Giovanni Francesco Costa, Title Page, published 1762published 1762

Giovanni Francesco Costa, Le Delizie del fiume Brenta nei palazzi e casini situati sopra le sue sponde dalla sua sboccatura nella laguna di Venezia infino alla città di Padova (The Delights of the Brenta River, in the Palaces and Villas Along the Banks, from Its Mouth in the Lagoon of Venice to the City of Padua) – 2017.140.1.1
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On March 11, 1747, Giovanni Francesco Costa, architect, scenographer, and etcher, received the Venetian Senate’s privilegio––equivalent to copyright protection––to create a series of views along the canal between the Brenta River and the Venetian Lagoon. Opened in the sixteenth century, the canal had become a fashionable location for the weekend and seasonal retreats of Venice’s leading families. In his petition of a couple of months earlier, Costa had explained that the project “would be so laborious and lavish, requiring so much time to take exact measurements, that it would need [the Senate’s] continuing protection.” A first volume of seventy plates appeared in 1750, and a second volume of equal number six years later. Complete, Le Delizie del fiume Brenta is one of the most extravagant and delightful projects of eighteenth-century Venetian printmaking.

The views proceed from east to west, from the Lagoon toward Padua. Each features a significant architectural structure, mostly the palazzi of the aristocracy. Those still standing confirm the accuracy of Costa’s measurements and his mastery of perspectival rendering. Together, the 140 plates represent a continuous trip up the canal (today a popular trip in tour boat). Inspired by the etchings of Canaletto, which were issued just a few years earlier, Costa’s views seem limitlessly varied in point of view, composition, and natural condition, from brilliant sunlight to impending storm. Their graphic language is consonantly varied, approaching that of Canaletto in wide vocabulary and sensitive touch. Series of views of Venice had become a staple of the city’s flourishing print production. The Delizie expanded their scope to the terra firma and multiplied their number many times. Moreover, the publication culminated the tradition of vicarious travel through serial imagery––armchair tourism––that began in the late sixteenth-century Netherlands and echoes in modern coffee-table books, films, and personal videos.

Whether the scale of the project impeded production or a stock of impressions suffered some early fate, Le Delizie del fiume Brenta is famously rare. There are at most fifteen complete copies in public collections worldwide: just two of the first edition, with some of the second edition made up from various states, and a third edition, of the 1770s, visibly worn. It was the single most important publication missing from the National Gallery’s outstanding collection of Venetian illustrated books. The present copy, uniformly very fine in original bindings and nearly perfect condition, is the only one to have appeared on the market in more than a half century.

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