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2015 Acquisition Highlights

Jacob Ochtervelt, A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer

A child and woman stand at the open door of an entryway with black and white marble floors, as the child drops a coin into the hat of a disheveled boy accompanied by a nursing mother across the threshold in this vertical painting. Beyond the entryway, a man and woman look on from a room with a landscape painting hanging over a tall mantle. All the people have pale skin. The child standing with the woman inside, near the door, looks at us with gray eyes. Blond ringlets frame a round face with full cheeks, a snub nose, and coral-red lips parted. The ringlets are tied with butter yellow ribbons and the rest of the head is covered with a white cap. The child’s garment has a wide, flaring, flat collar, a tight-fitting bodice, and a flaring, floor-length skirt. Pale plum-purple, puffy sleeves are tied with pale yellow and azure-blue ribbons, and a cape of the same fabric lined with pale grass green falls from the shoulders. A medallion hangs from a thick gold chain looped over the child’s right shoulder, to our left, across to the opposite hip. The child touches the hand of the woman standing behind with one hand, to our right, and drops a silver coin into the proffered hat with the other. The woman’s body faces us but she turns her oval-shaped face to look down at the boy holding out his hat. She wears a scarlet-red, long-sleeved bodice with a wide, white collar over her chest. A taupe-brown apron covers her dark skirt and her bonnet is long on the sides, draping to brush her shoulders. She rests her right hand, to our left, on her stomach and touches the fingertips of the child in front of her with the other. Near the lower right corner of the painting, a small white dog with ginger-brown spots stands on the black-and-white marble floor, looking up toward the exchange. Light pours into the entryway through the open door and a transom window above it. The walls are light gray and the doorways are surrounded with darker gray molding. A painting of a landscape hangs above the doorway leading to the room beyond. The man and woman there look at us from in front of a mantle that is taller than the woman who stands next to the man, who is seated. The woman’s hair is pulled back under a cap, and she wears a silver-gray dress lined with a wide band of white fur. She holds one hand to her waist and gestures toward the foyer with the other. The man wears a black suit with a wide, flat collar. The floor in this room is a checkerboard pattern of brick red and bone white, and sky-blue panels with gilded leafy designs cover part of the walls. A stone cherub like a small, chubby child, stands on the mantle to our left, next to the landscape painting there. Back in the entryway, across the threshold, the boy steps with one foot onto the floor of the foyer as he holds out his frayed, brimmed hat. He has short-cropped blond hair and wears a mustard yellow shirt with chestnut brown, tattered pants. The nursing woman stands next to the door, out of sight of the people inside, holding a baby to one round breast. The boy and woman’s faces, necks, and hands are noticeably tanned, almost orange. Two small children huddle, almost out of sight, in the narrow space between the boy and the left edge of the painting. They look down onto a few light tan disks, perhaps coins, on the step in front of them. In the distance beyond the family are a few trees and buildings beneath a vibrant blue sky with puffy white clouds. The artist signed and dates the painting in the lower right corner, “J. Ochtervelt f. 1663.”

Jacob Ochtervelt, A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, 1663, oil on canvas, The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund, 2015.68.1

A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, 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 an Elegant Foyer 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.

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen

A flatboat with eight fair complexioned men floats towards us down a wide river in this horizontal painting. The boat nearly spans the width of the composition and has low sides and a shallowly arched, low cabin upon which the men gather. At the center, a man with dark hair and wearing light blue trousers and a pink shirt dances with one foot and both arms raised. To our right a seated musician plays a fiddle and to our left a smiling man holds up a metal pot and strikes the flat bottom with the back of his fingers. The remaining men sit or recline around the musicians and dancing man, some looking towards the dancer and two looking out at us. Bedrolls and animal skins are stored in the cabin below. The olive green surface of the river is streaked with pale blue. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the composition. The trees and riverbanks in the distance are hazy beneath a watery blue sky.

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, oil on canvas, 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.

Idris Khan, Every...Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder

Idris Khan, Every...Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, August 2004August 2004

Idris Khan, Every...Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, August 2004, gelatin silver print, 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, 2015.169.1

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.