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Summer Institute 2016

This seminar examines visual art of the Renaissance as it found expression in the independent city-states of Italy and the Low Countries from the 14th through the 16th century. The term Renaissance, meaning “rebirth,” refers to the humanistic revival of classical culture and learning with its underlying belief in the creative potential of humankind. As scholars and theologians worked to reconcile their new knowledge of antiquity with the teachings of Christianity, the educated and affluent would begin to see earthly life as an arena for individual fulfillment, not just preparation for religious salvation. An awakening sense of individual artistic identity superseded that of the guild craftsman and led visual artists to begin signing their work. Writers also began to celebrate their own accomplishments through newly invented literary forms of memoir and autobiography.

Renaissance values spread across Europe, catalyzing the transition from medieval to modern times. While the church would remain the wealthiest and most prominent patron of the arts, rising fortunes among aristocratic and merchant classes created a demand for secular and utilitarian art forms. Florence, the birthplace of Renaissance art, grew wealthy, transforming families like the Medici and the Farnese into political dynasties that expressed their power through visual symbols and cultural patronage. Venice, as a major trading port between East and West, introduced Europeans to luxury goods such as textiles, ceramics, enamels, and decorative arts from Asia and the Islamic world that had a marked influence on Italian art. Throughout Europe, portraiture would emerge as an important vehicle for expressing economic power and social ambition, while commissions for public sculpture and architecture provided even more visible and enduring evidence of a patron’s prestige.

The influence of the Renaissance on visual art gradually spread to Northern Europe by the 16th century, including to the Netherlands, Germany, and France, as artists (and works of art) traveled, carrying new ideas and approaches to art. The Northern Renaissance assumed a distinctive character reflecting the religious, economic, and cultural conditions there.

Participants in the Summer Teacher Institute will study works by leading Renaissance artists as represented in the Gallery’s permanent collection, including the painters Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. The development of oil-painting techniques and their impact on artists seeking naturalistic visual effects will be highlighted. The role of prints in disseminating new ideas and in making an artist’s work accessible to the middle class will be considered in the Gallery’s Print Study Room, where teachers will examine woodblock prints and engravings by masters such as Albrecht Dürer.

This seminar highlights the social and cultural context of Renaissance art and demonstrates interdisciplinary teaching strategies. Activities are designed to meet teachers' personal and professional enrichment needs.

By offering an opportunity to explore paintings and objects in the National Gallery and other collections, the Institute aims to:

  • Provide an introduction to Italian and Northern Renaissance art and social history from the 1300s through the 1500s;
  • Examine and compare artistic techniques and subjects as influenced by Renaissance ideals in both Italy and the Netherlands;
  • Foster an understanding of painting as an artistic creation and of period techniques of fabrication;
  • Encourage the use of works of art as primary sources in classroom instruction;
  • Share models for incorporating art into interdisciplinary teaching and strengthen students' visual literacy.




The 2016 Teacher Institute is supported by generous gifts from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Sara Shallenberger Brown Fund, and the Annetta J. and Robert M. Coffelt Sr. and Robert M. Coffelt Jr. Endowed Fellowship.


Questions about this program should be directed to [email protected]. When contacting the Gallery, please provide a telephone number and the times of day when you can best be reached.