Skip to Main Content

The American Galleries

Near a verdant riverbank against soaring, hazy cliffs, a nude, chubby baby sits in a golden boat on a bed of pink and white flowers in this horizontal painting. A winged angel wearing a white robe with a glowing starburst hovering overhead stands behind the child with one hand resting on the tiller of the boat. The angel and child both have pale skin and blond hair. The baby holds up handfuls of flowers and looks forward. The bow of the boat is angled to our right as it glides along the glassy surface of the river. The boat seems to be made of or carved to look like a mass of gold, winged angels clustered to make the vessel. They reach toward a single angel thrust forward from the bow, like a masthead, who holds up an hourglass. The boat has just emerged from a dark cave at the base of rocky, rose-pink cliffs that reach off the top left edge of the canvas. The jagged peaks become pale pink as they march into the distance. A spit of the lush riverbank fills the lower left corner of the composition; it and the far bank are dotted with white waterlilies and a profusion of yellow, blue, pink, purple, and red flowers. Celery and moss-green growth carpets the boulders on either side the cave mouth and the ground stretching beyond the riverbank. The growth becomes mauve-purple as it recedes to the horizon, which comes a third of the way up the composition and is lit by a golden glow. Petal-pink and gray clouds float among the cliff-tops against an otherwise pale blue sky. The artist dated and signed the lower left, “1842 T. Cole Rome.”

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1971.16.1

Thomas Cole’s four-part masterpiece, The Voyage of Life, has come to serve as the gateway to the American collections. Consisting of Childhood (fig. 5), Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, his imaginary landscape allegory is deeply rooted in biblical sources as well as in American and British poetry and literature of the romantic era, and it is considered one of the most important and original achievements of his career. The first version of the series, now in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, was commissioned in 1839 by a New York banker, Samuel Ward. When Ward died before the commission was completed, a dispute arose as to whether Cole had a right to exhibit the works publicly before delivering them to the Ward family. Cole eventually decided to paint a duplicate set while in Europe, which he completed and exhibited in Rome in 1842. Following his return to the United States, Cole sold this set to a Cincinnati collector. When Cole suddenly died in 1848, the original version was purchased by the American Art-Union, which succeeded in making it one of the most famous American works of the nineteenth century by distributing the series by lottery and arranging for the distribution of 20,000 prints of Youth. The second version was eventually purchased by the National Gallery in 1971 with support from the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Other works by Cole to enter the collections more recently include Sunrise in the Catskills in 1989 (gift of Mrs. John D. Rockfeller 3rd, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the National Gallery of Art) and Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower (gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art) in 1993.

Following this room devoted to Cole, the most influential landscape painter in the United States in the early nineteenth century, is a gallery devoted to Gilbert Stuart, the most accomplished American portraitist of Federal America. Chief among the Stuart works is the Gibbs-Coolidge set of presidential portraits consisting of iconic images of the first five presidents of the United States. The only surviving set of its kind, it was commissioned by George Gibbs, an amateur geologist from Rhode Island and founder of the American Journal of Science. More than a century after the group was purchased from the Gibbs family by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge in 1872, Coolidge’s great-grandson and namesake bequeathed the Washington and Jefferson portraits to the Gallery. The remaining three paintings in the set were acquired through the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Beginning with Andrew Mellon’s initial gift in 1941, the number of works by Stuart in the American collection has grown steadily to forty-two, more than those any other artist except George Catlin.

A young man shown from the waist up behind a tabletop takes up the left half of this vertical portrait, and a geranium in a terracotta pot takes up the right half of the painting. The man has pale, peachy skin and dark brown hair. He wears a pair of glasses with small oval lenses, a white neckcloth, and a brown coat. He looks down and to our left. He holds a second pair of silver-rimmed glasses in his right hand on the table, and his left hand, on our right, rests on the edge of the terracotta pot. The tall, leggy geranium nearly reaches the upper edge of the canvas and has two clusters of small red flowers near its top. The young man and plant are shown against a fawn-brown background. The artist signed and dated the painting in white letters in the lower right corner: “Rem Peale 1801.”

Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1985.59.1

One of the finest American portraits, Rembrandt Peale’s remarkable image of his brother, Rubens Peale with a Geranium (fig. 6), frequently hangs in the Stuart gallery. Reflecting the Peale family’s interests in both art and science, this work can be understood as a dual portrait of the sitter and the plant. The two fingers with which Rubens tests the soil are mirrored in the forms of the two sharp buds of the geranium, which seem to reach for the young Rubens’ hair. Accessioned in 1985, this painting was the first acquisition made possible by the Gallery’s primary source for major purchases, the Patrons’ Permanent Fund. Among other important works by the Peale family that have entered the Gallery’s collections since 1980 are Charles Willson Peale’s John Beale Bordley (gift of The Barra Foundation, Inc., 1984), Raphaelle Peale’s A Dessert (gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., in memory of Franklin D. Murphy, 1999), and James Peale’s Fruit Still Life with Chinese Export Basket (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas M. Evans in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1990).

This vertical portrait shows the head, shoulders, and chest of an indiginous Iowan man with brown skin whose face is mostly painted with red and green. His body and face are angled to our right and he looks into the distance with dark eyes. Crimson-red paint covers his forehead, the sides of his cheeks, and neck. Four parallel lines of pine green angle up his right cheek, on our left, like the four fingers of a hand. A green line on the other cheek could be the thumb, and the palm might have left the green mark on his chin. The man’s nose and cheeks near the nose are unpainted. His spiky headdress is ornamented with two feathers and is held in place with a wide band of dark fur that wraps across his forehead and around the back of his head. Earrings hang from the lobes and tops of his ears, and he wears a necklace made up of bear claws, beads, and seashells, including an oval shaped, medallion-like shell at his throat. His garment is made up of white fur and what appears to be tawny-brown animal hide. Tan-colored clouds create a screen across an ice-blue sky in the background.

George Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844/1845, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1965.16.347

The views looking west and east of the Stuart gallery are galleries that highlight George Catlin’s Indian paintings and American folk art from the collection of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. The Garbisch collection was donated over a twenty-seven-year period (from 1953 to 1980) and recognizes the often brilliant contributions to American culture of a vast array of artists—often self-taught and unidentified—who invented their own unique idioms largely outside of the mainstream art institutions of their day. The works by Catlin donated by Paul Mellon in 1965, known collectively as the “Cartoon Collection,” include paintings of North and South American Indians, as well as a series of works Catlin completed for Louis Philippe, king of France, picturing the voyages of the French explorer La Salle in the New World. While many of Catlin’s images serve primarily to document Indian cultures, the rich painterly qualities of portraits such as The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas (fig. 7) also testify to his remarkable artistic talents. Together the Garbisch and Catlin gifts total more than six hundred paintings and represent more than half of all the works in the American painting collections.

The sightlines leading south and east from the Stuart gallery culminate with works that address, obliquely and directly, two of the great military cataclysms of American history: the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. While John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (fig. 8) primarily relates the story of how young Brook Watson lost his leg while being rescued from a shark attack in Havana harbor in Cuba in 1749, the way Copley dramatically suspends the violent moment in time also suggests how the destinies of America and Britain hung in the balance when he created the painting in 1777. One of the great masterworks of the National Gallery, it was willed by Watson to Christ’s Hospital, an orphanage in London, from whom the Gallery purchased it in 1963 with support provided by the Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund. Complementing Copley’s vision and commemorating the Civil War is an equally compelling masterpiece placed on long-term loan to the Gallery in 1997: the full-scale plaster cast for Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Robert Gould Shaw.

We look onto the side of a rowboat crowded with nine men trying to save a pale, nude young man who flails in the water in front of us as a shark approaches, mouth agape, from our right in this horizontal painting. In the water, the man floats with his chest facing the sky, his right arm overhead and the other stretched out by his side. Extending to our left, his left leg is bent and the right leg is straight, disappearing below the knee. His long blond hair swirls in the water and he arches his back, his wide-open eyes looking toward the shark behind him. To our right, the shark rolls up out of the water with its gaping jaws showing rows of pointed teeth. In the boat, eight of the men have light or tanned complexions, and one man has dark brown skin. The man with brown skin stands at the back center of the boat, and he holds one end of a rope, which falls across the boat and around the upper arm of the man in the water. Another man stands at the stern of the boat, to our right, poised with a long, hooked harpoon over the side of the boat, ready to strike the shark. His long dark hair blows back and he wears a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, white breeches, blue stockings, and his shoes have silver buckles. Two other men wearing white shirts with blousy sleeves lean over the side of the boat, bracing each other as they reach toward the man in the water. An older, balding man holds the shirt and body of one of this pair and looks on, his mouth open. The other men hold long oars and look into the water with furrowed brows. The tip of a shark’s tail slices through the water to our right of the boat, near the right edge of the canvas. Along the horizon line, which comes three-quarters of the way up the composition, buildings and tall spires line the harbor. The masts of boats at port creates a row of crosses against the light blue sky. Steely gray clouds sweep across the upper left corner of the canvas and the sky lightens to pale, butter yellow at the horizon.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

The most important landscape and marine paintings in the American collections can be seen in a pair of grand, expansive galleries (64 and 67) appropriate to the vast spaces found in many of the works that hang there. This aspect of the collections grew in stature dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s with acquisitions such as Jasper Francis Cropsey’s Autumn—On the Hudson River (gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1963), Frederic Edwin Church’s El Rio de Luz (The River of Light) (gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1965), Cole’s A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch) (Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1967), Cropsey’s The Spirit of War (Avalon Fund, 1978), and John Frederick Kensett’s Beach at Beverly (gift of Frederick Sturges Jr., 1978).  Several other significant works now on view were acquired in the last ten years, including Siout, Egypt by Sanford Robinson Gifford (New Century Fund, Gift of Joan and David Maxwell, 1999), The Last Valley—Paradise Rocks by John La Farge (Gaillard F. Ravenel and Frances P. Smyth-Ravenel Fund, 2000), and Second Beach, Newport by Worthington Whittredge (Paul Mellon Fund and Gift of Juliana Terian in memory of Peter G. Terian, 2004).

From a little above a dirt road, we look past a grove of trees to a broad plain and a lake at the foot of towering, hazy mountains in this horizontal landscape painting. The narrow, teal-blue lake runs from left to right along the horizon, which comes about a third of the way up the composition so the hills and mountains take up most of the picture. On the far shore of the lake, steep hills are thick with fern-green trees and growth. Beyond these hills, muted gray and green rocky mountains reach precipitously into the clear, robin’s egg-blue sky so some nearly touch the top edge of the canvas. Snow nestles in the mountain peaks while gauzy mist hovers among the mountain tops. The meadow below is a patchwork of avocado-green and sand-brown fields. An ice-blue stream winds from the lake across the plain while olive-green trees and shrubs dot the fields. Closest to us, in the lower left corner of the painting, small stones and clumps of green grass run along the dirt road, and boulders line it to either side. A band of dark green spanning the road creates a screen a short distance from us, in the lower left quadrant of the composition. Through the trees is a view of miniscule buildings lining the lakeside. In the shadows, under the trees, people camp with a covered wagon covered in white fabric and several animals including a donkey. A red and yellow fire glows, almost lost in the deep shadows of the trees, next to the people. On our right, about a dozen people with a horse-drawn wagon, all tiny in scale, work in the field next to the stream. Farther along the stream, another wagon approaches a covered bridge. On our right and close to us, a dark shadow falls across the landscape. Beyond the shadow, a group of buildings with a church in the center sit on a low hill.

Albert Bierstadt, Lake Lucerne, 1858, oil on canvas, Gift of Richard M. Scaife and Margaret R. Battle, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1990.50.1

Also displayed here are two long-lost works: Albert Bierstadt’s Lake Lucerne (gift of Richard M. Scaife and Margaret R. Battle, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, fig. 9) and Asher B. Durand’s The Stranded Ship (gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds). Lake Lucerne, the most ambitious painting of Bierstadt’s early career and a prototype for his great western landscapes of the 1860s, essentially disappeared from public view following the death of the original owner in 1877. Quietly hung in a private home in Rhode Island throughout the twentieth century, its location remained a mystery to scholars until the work was acquired by the Gallery following the owner’s death in 1989. Durand’s The Stranded Ship experienced a similar fate. Prior to its purchase by the Gallery in 2003, this ambitious painting, with its dramatic asymmetrical composition and romantic subject matter in the manner of Cole, had not been exhibited publicly since it was first shown in New York at the National Academy of Design in 1844. It then remained secluded in private hands for more than one hundred and fifty years.

We look onto two black-headed ducks twisting and flailing midair against a slate-gray landscape in this horizontal painting. The silvery white body of the bird to our left faces us as its neck twists to our left, its black wings extended. The bird to our right falls with its head facing down, its gray wings partially contracted and its legs splayed. The landscape behind them is made up of a sliver of golden amber along the top edge above three wider bands of steel gray that darken toward the bottom of the canvas. A spray of turquoise near the bottom center of the painting indicates that the gray bands are cresting waves. Seen in the distance beyond the feet of the left bird, a gray smudge suggests smoke obscuring a man wearing a gray garment and vivid orange cap. His elbows are raised, presumably holding a shotgun. He sits in a long brown canoe that rides near the crest of the middle wave.

Winslow Homer, Right and Left, 1909, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1951.8.1

Beginning with Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) in 1943, Winslow Homer, perhaps the most accomplished and popular of all American artists, has come to be represented at the Gallery by so many significant works from almost every phase of his varied career that in 1997 and 2006 the Gallery was able to organize exhibitions of Homer’s work drawn entirely from its own collections. The paintings range from Homer’s poignant study of Civil War camp life, Home, Sweet Home (Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1997), to his later masterpiece, Right and Left (gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1951, fig. 10), a work the artist suffused with intimations of mortality by having the viewer confronted directly with a flash of shotgun fire; this point was made discernible only by a small touch of red paint in the far background of the image. Also on display is Sparrow Hall, from the John Wilmerding Collection, which may be the only oil painting made by Homer during his pivotal stay in Cullercoats, England, from 1881 to 1882. In addition to these masterworks, the Gallery’s holdings of work by Winslow Homer include extraordinary watercolors given by Ruth K. Henschel in memory of her husband Charles R. Henschel in 1975 and by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon in 1994.

Eastman Johnson, On Their Way to Camp, 1873, oil on board, Paul Mellon Fund and Gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., 2008.66.2

Several other distinguished genre paintings can be found alongside the works by Homer in gallery 68. Two classic works by George Caleb Bingham depicts aspects of life along the Mississippi River: The Jolly Flatboatmen (on loan from The Manoogian Collection) and Mississippi Boatman (John Wilmerding Collection, 2004). Also on view are two significant recent additions to the Gallery’s American genre paintings by Homer’s great contemporary, Eastman Johnson, Gathering Lilies and On Their Way to Camp (both Paul Mellon Fund and gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., 2008, fig. 11). The former shows a young woman gracefully picking water lilies from a pond, while the latter presents children participating in the harvesting of maple syrup in Maine. Finally, there is Thomas Eakins’ remarkable rendering—with precise technical attention paid to the details of the boat and the movements of the oarsmen—of two of the most famous rowing champions of their day in their scull on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, The Biglin Brothers Racing (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, 1953).

On the brick pavement of a sunny veranda, a young toddler leans heavily on her right arm, to our left, as she reaches for a wooden block in this horizontal painting. Much of her face is cast in deep shadow from the bright light overhead, but light brushes the tops of her cheeks and the tip of her nose. She grips a wooden block with her left hand, closer to us. Her left leg stretches to our right in a stocking striped with vivid red and white. Light glints off the shiny material of her black, round-toed slipper. She has short, golden-brown hair, and her white smock is richly embroidered in a pattern of white-one-white with alternating linked loops. Scattered before her, at arms-length, are seven other alphabet blocks lettered in gray with red and tan faces, several wooden building blocks, and a ball of red yarn. A doll in a black dress lies with limbs akimbo, face-down by a potted plant at the right edge of the canvas. A red wagon drawn by white toy horse sits near the left edge. The scene is enclosed with a deep, emerald-green hedge stretching across the background. The artist signed and dated this work as if he had inscribed two of the bricks on the patio with red paint in cursive script, in the lower right corner: “Eakins 76.”

Thomas Eakins, Baby at Play, 1876, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982.76.5

In the following gallery (69) is an unusual work by Eakins that falls somewhere between genre and portraiture, Baby at Play (John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982, fig. 12). While ostensibly an informal scene of a child playing with blocks, its life-size scale and heroic classical composition invest the image with a level of seriousness more in keeping with Eakins’ full-length portrait of a noted ophthalmologist installed nearby, Dr. William Thomson (John Wilmerding Collection). Also found here are several works by one of the most accomplished portraitists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John Singer Sargent. Among these is Sargent’s incisive portrait of Eleanora O’Donnell Iselin (gift of Ernest Iselin, 1964) in which the rich play of blacks in the dress dramatically sets off the sitter’s expressive hands. But perhaps the most notable of the many remarkable portraits found in this gallery is James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (Harris Whittemore Collection, 1943, see fig. 4). This work shocked viewers in Paris at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, in part because it defied the formal rules of grand-manner portraiture by insisting that its beautiful and subtle interplay of white-on-white paint mattered more than the identity of its sitter.

The majority of the still lifes installed in the small cabinet gallery (69A) adjacent to the portrait gallery have been acquired since 1990. Indeed, no other aspect of the Gallery’s collection of American art has seen such dramatic growth in recent years. Major still-life painters of the nineteenth century are well represented with such examples as William Michael Harnett’s The Old Violin (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mellon Scaife in honor of Paul Mellon, 1993), John Frederick Peto’s For the Track (gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., in honor of Earl A. Powell III, 1997), and Still Life with Oranges and Goblet of Wine (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1999); and Martin Johnson Heade’s Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth (gift of the Circle of the National Gallery of Art in commemoration of its tenth anniversary, 1996). Works by lesser-known but brilliant artists include Samuel Lewis’s A Deception (gift of Max and Heidi Barry), Joseph Decker’s Ripening Pears (gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund, 2004), and John Haberle’s Imitation (New Century Fund, gift of the Amon G. Carter Foundation, 1998). Promised gifts from the collection of the distinguished scholars of American art, William and Abigail Gerdts, will continue to enhance the Gallery’s still-life holdings in the future.

We look across a profusion of vivid red, blush-pink, and white flowers lining a stony shoreline in this almost square landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted so some details are indistinct, especially the blossoms of the flowers, which are dabs of pink and red. The flowers have long, sage-green stems shaded with flicks of navy blue. The field of flowers covers the bottom third of the composition, and a vibrant green and blue bush peeks in from the right edge of the painting. Beyond the field of flowers is a powder-blue body of water with low, rocky formations, like giant, shallow boulders rolling across the surface of the water. The rocks are painted in shades of white tinged with pink, blue, and green with daubs of rust orange along their edges. An outcropping farther in the distance to our left is carpeted with patches of pea green and canary yellow. One rock formation in the middle of the composition almost spans the width of the painting. Beyond it is a small boat with white sails drifting on the water. In the deep distance is another long finger of oyster-white land stretching across the left half of the horizon, which comes two-thirds of the way up the composition. A lone bird flies through the milk-white sky that fills the top third of the scene. Some patches along the bottom edge of the painting are beige, where the canvas on which this is painted is visible. The artist signed and dated the lower left, “Childe Hassam 1891.”

Childe Hassam, Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891, oil on canvas, Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz, 1997.135.1

The final American galleries (70 and 71) are devoted to American impressionism and the Ashcan school. Joining earlier donations of Hassam’s Allies Day, May 1917, Chase’s A Friendly Call, John Henry Twachtman’s Winter Harmony (gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1964), and Frank Benson’s Margaret (“Gretchen”) Strong (gift of Elizabeth Clark Hayes, 1992), the recent gifts by Margaret and Raymond Horowitz of three of their finest American impressionist paintings—Julian Alden Weir’s U.S. Thread Company Mills, Willimantic, Connecticut (acquired 1997), Childe Hassam’s Poppies, Isles of Shoals (acquired 1997, fig. 13), and Dennis Bunker’s Roadside Cottage (acquired 2007) —have allowed the Gallery to represent this important movement in American art more comprehensively than ever before. The collections’ three great masterpieces by the most accomplished of the Ashcan school artists, George Bellows, were all given by Chester Dale: Both Members of This Club (acquired 1944), Blue Morning, and The Lone Tenement (both acquired 1962). Together with Bellows’ recently conserved New York (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1986), these dynamic images of early twentieth-century urban life provide a dramatic conclusion to the impressive overview of American art history now available to visitors to the West Building.

Previous Page                                                                                          Next Page