West Building Tour: Featured Selections (English)
Use your smartphone to explore a wide range of works through the voices of National Gallery of Art curators. Set your own pace by listening to as many stops as you like in the order you choose. Don't forget to bring your headphones!
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- Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl
In this painting, James McNeill Whistler used variations of white pigment to create interesting spatial and formal relationships. By limiting his palette, minimizing tonal contrast, and sharply skewing the perspective, he flattened forms and emphasized their abstract patterns. This dramatic compositional approach reflects the influence of Japanese prints, which were becoming well known in Paris as international trade increased. Whistler was more interested in creating an abstract design than in capturing an exact likeness of the model, his lover Joanna Hiffernan. His radical espousal of a purely aesthetic orientation and the creation of “art for art’s sake” became a rallying cry of modernism.
- Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)
Following an extended trip to Europe in 1866–1867, Winslow Homer adopted an interest in painting outdoor scenes that owed much to the influence of contemporary French artists such as Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet. Upon his return to the United States, Homer turned his attention to lively scenes of sports and recreation, painting warm and appealing images perfectly suited to the prevalent post–Civil War nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent America. Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), completed during the country’s centennial year, has become one of the best-known and most beloved artistic images of life in 19th-century America.
- The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial
The Shaw Memorial has been acclaimed as the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century. This version at the Gallery is cast from the original bronze memorial, which is located in Boston. The memorial commemorates the valiant efforts of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first Civil War regiments of African American soldiers enlisted in the North. The regiment was raised shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Recruits came from many states, encouraged by such leaders as the great orator Frederick Douglass, whose own sons joined the 54th. The unit was commanded by 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, the Harvard-educated son of dedicated white abolitionists.
- The Voyage of Life: Youth
Thomas Cole’s renowned four-part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the river of life. The voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the aspirations of youth. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever-more-turbulent stream relentlessly carries him toward the threats of nature’s fury, evil demons, and self-doubt. Only prayer, the series suggests, can save the voyager from a dark fate. Cole’s intrepid voyager also may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development. The artist may have been issuing a dire warning to those caught up in the feverish quest for Manifest Destiny—that unbridled westward expansion and industrialization would have tragic consequences for both man and nature.
- Watson and the Shark
Watson and the Shark’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778 generated a sensation, partly because such a grisly subject was an absolute novelty. In 1749, 14-year-old Brook Watson had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. John Singleton Copley’s pictorial account of the traumatic ordeal shows nine seamen rushing to help the boy, while the bloody water proves he has just lost his right foot. The rescuers’ anxious expressions and actions reveal both concern for their thrashing companion and a growing awareness of their own peril. Miraculously, Watson was saved and went on to become a successful merchant and politician.
- Wivenhoe Park, Essex
A pleasant sense of ease and harmony pervades this landscape of almost photographic clarity. The large areas of brilliant sunshine and cool shade, the rambling line of the fence, and the balance of trees, meadow, and river are evidence of the artist’s creative synthesis of the actual site. The precision of John Constable’s brushwork, seen in the animals, birds, and people, lends importance to these smaller details. His deep, consuming attachment to the landscape of this rural area is a constant factor in his works, and his studies and sketchbooks reveal his complete absorption in the pictorial elements of his native countryside.
- Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight
A flood of moonlight breaks through the clouds and illuminates the sky and water. The heavy impasto (thick buildup of paint) of the moon’s reflection on the expanse of water rivals the radiance of the sky, where gradations of light create a powerful, swirling vortex. To the right, the keelmen and the dark, flat-bottomed keels that carried coal down the river are silhouetted against the orange and white flames from the torches, as the coal is transferred to the larger ships. Behind the ships to the left, the artist suggested a distant cluster of factories and ships with touches of gray paint and a few thin lines.
- Boy in a Red Waistcoat
Depicting an Italian boy named Michelangelo di Rosa, this work is one of four devoted to this model that Paul Cézanne produced from 1888 to 1890. In each painting, the young man wears the same striking red vest, which introduces a bold accent into each of the otherwise muted compositions. While the loose brushwork and lack of shading give the work a modern appearance, the boy’s pensive demeanor and elegant pose—his weight shifted onto one leg with hips tilted, and one arm bent with hand resting on his waist—evoke Italian Renaissance portraits by artists whom Cézanne admired, lending a consciously timeless quality.
This self-portrait, painted on a cupboard door from the dining room of an inn in the Breton hamlet Le Pouldu, France, is one of Paul Gauguin’s most important and radical paintings. His haloed head and disembodied right hand, a snake inserted between the fingers, float on amorphous zones of yellow and red. Elements of caricature add an ironic and aggressively ambivalent inflection. Gauguin’s friends called it an unkind character sketch.
This self-portrait was painted by Vincent van Gogh during his stay in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. Van Gogh chose to portray himself at work, dressed in his artist’s smock with his palette and brushes in hand. Although the pose and the intense scrutiny of the artist’s gaze are hardly unique, a tormented quality is evident. The dark blue-violets of the smock and the background contrast sharply with the vivid orange of the artist’s hair and beard, heightening his gaunt features and sallow complexion. The dynamic, even frenzied, brushwork lends an expressiveness to his uncompromising portrayal of a troubled yet still resolute artist.
- Rouen Cathedral, West Façade
In February 1892, Claude Monet undertook the first of three expeditions to Rouen to paint a series of works focusing on the city’s cathedral, renting a room across from the building to serve as his studio. It was not the cathedral itself that fascinated Monet, but rather the challenge of capturing the subtle and varied effects of the weather and time of day on the unchanging motif of the Gothic facade. Over the course of nearly two years he painted a total of 30 canvases, 28 of which depict the western portal. Rouen Cathedral is the most ambitious of any series that Monet produced during the 1890s.
- The Old Musician
The Old Musician features a motley group of the urban poor of Paris: a ragpicker wearing a battered top hat, a turbaned man, three children, one of whom carries a baby, and a wandering musician. These characters are set against an undefined background that has been identified as a slum on the edge of Paris known as Little Poland. Édouard Manet’s choice to depict on such a grand scale the people who had been uprooted by the modernization of Paris under Baron Haussmann seems to introduce an element of social commentary. Yet the lack of interaction among the figures and the ambiguity of the setting deprive the painting of a conventional narrative, rendering its ultimate meaning opaque.
- The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
In this imposing portrait, the French emperor Napoleon is shown dressed in his military uniform and standing in front of his desk, upon which rests a copy of the Napoleonic Code. Behind him, the quill pen and papers that are spread haphazardly across the desk, a nearly extinguished candle, and the clock on the wall that reads 4:13 a.m. suggest that he has spent the night composing the new legal code. By underscoring Napoleon’s military prowess, his administrative skill, and his dedication to the well-being of his subjects, Jacques-Louis David created a potent image of imperial power.
- The Marquesa de Pontejos
The 18th century’s sentimental fondness for nature, influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is alluded to here in the park-like setting, the roses arranged in the marquesa’s gown, and the carnation that she holds with self-conscious elegance. Framing her artfully arranged hairstyle, the broad-brimmed hat bespeaks high fashion, perhaps imported from England. While the painting’s pale tones reflect the last stages of the rococo in Spanish art, the overall silvery gray-green tonality is equally reminiscent of the earlier Spanish master Diego Velázquez, whose paintings Francisco de Goya had studied and copied.
- Death and the Miser
This panel by Hieronymus Bosch shows us the last moments in the life of a miser, just before his eternal fate is decided. A little monster peeping out from under the bed-curtains tempts the miser with a bag of gold, while an angel kneeling at the right encourages him to acknowledge the crucifix in the window. Death, holding an arrow, enters at the left. Oppositions of good and evil occur throughout the painting. A lantern containing the fire of hell, carried by the demon atop the bed canopy, balances the cross emitting a single ray of divine light.
Rembrandt van Rijn painted, drew, and etched so many self-portraits in his lifetime that changes in his appearance invite us to gauge his moods by comparing one image to another. Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1659, after he had suffered financial failure despite so many years of success. His spacious house and other possessions had been auctioned the previous year to satisfy his creditors. In this late work, the deep-set eyes that bore into those of the viewer seem to express inner strength and dignity.
Suspecting trickery, Laocoön, a mythical priest of Troy, had warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside the city by the Greeks and had hurled his spear at it to prove that it was hollow. He thus incurred the wrath of the gods for desecrating an object dedicated to the goddess Athena. El Greco depicted serpents, sent by the angry gods, engaging Laocoön and one son in a mortal struggle, while a second son lies dead at his father’s side. The identity of the unfinished figures on the right is unclear. Using writhing line, lurid color, and illogically conceived space, the artist projected an unrelieved sense of doom.
- The Small Crucifixion
Silhouetted against a greenish-blue sky and illuminated by an undefined light source, Jesus’s emaciated frame sags limply on the cross. His twisted feet and hands, crown of thorns, agonized expression, and ragged loincloth convey the terrible physical and emotional suffering he has endured. The mood is intensified by the anguished faces and demonstrative gestures of John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, and the kneeling Mary Magdalene. Matthias Grünewald’s dissonant, eerie colors are both expressive and rooted in the biblical narrative. The murky sky, for instance, corresponds to Luke’s description of “a darkness over all the earth” at the time of the crucifixion.
- The Feast of the Gods
In this illustration of a scene from the Roman poet Ovid’s Fasti, the gods, with Jupiter, Neptune, and Apollo among them, revel in a forest setting, eating and drinking, attended by nymphs and satyrs. The lustful Priapus, god of fertility, stealthily lifts the gown of the sleeping nymph Lotis, as seen on the right. According to the tale, he will be foiled by the braying of Silenus’s ass a moment later.
- Ginevra de' Benci [obverse]
Ginevra de’ Benci was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Florence, and her portrait—the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas—was probably commissioned about the time of her marriage at age 16. It is one of the artist’s earliest experiments with the new medium of oil paint. He placed her in an open setting at a time when women were still shown sheltered within the walls of their family homes, with landscapes glimpsed only through open windows. The three-quarter pose, neither facing fully forward nor in profile, is among the first in Italian portraiture. The juniper leaves framing her refer to her chastity, the greatest virtue of a Renaissance woman, and pun on her name; the Italian for juniper is ginepro.
- Daniel in the Lions' Den
Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of the 17th century and a devout Catholic, masterfully combined realism and theatricality to draw a strong emotional reaction. Here, several lions stare at us directly, suggesting that we share their space and, like Daniel, experience the same menace. By portraying them close to life size with convincing realism, Rubens heightened this immediacy. The lions’ lifelike movement and their superbly rendered fur resulted from Rubens’s direct observation and sketches he made at the royal menagerie in Brussels. The dramatic lighting and the exaggerated emotionalism of Daniel’s prayerful pose add to the veracity.
- The Repentant Magdalen
According to the tenets of 17th-century Catholicism, Mary Magdalene was an example of the repentant sinner. She became one of Jesus’s most devoted followers, and he absolved her of her former sins. Here, Mary is shown in profile seated at a table. A candle is the source of light in the composition, but the light also carries a spiritual meaning as it casts a golden glow on the saint’s face and the objects assembled on the table. The candlelight silhouettes Mary’s left hand, which rests on a skull that is placed on a book, which is then reflected in a mirror. The skull and mirror are emblems of vanitas, implying the transience of life.
- The Annunciation
This painting, which was probably once the left wing of a triptych (a work of art divided into three sections), depicts the Annunciation as described in the book of Luke. Religious symbolism is present in every detail. In the background, the murals and single stained-glass window of the dark upper story of the church refer to the Old Testament, while the lower part of the building, dominated by transparent, triple windows symbolizing the Trinity, refers to the New Testament. The idea of passing from old to new is further seen in the transition from the Romanesque round-arched windows of the upper story to the early Gothic pointed arches of the lower zone.
- The Alba Madonna
In this “Madonna of Humility,” the Virgin Mary is seated directly on the ground instead of on a heavenly throne or a sumptuous cushion. The artist grouped the figures in a broad, low pyramid, aligning them within a circle in such a way that they not only conform to their space, but dominate it as well. The Roman style Raphael adapted can be seen in the painting’s delicacy of color and mood, with figures draped in rose pink, pale blue, and green, set in an idealized, classical landscape. Despite the serene atmosphere, the Christ Child’s gesture of accepting the cross from John the Baptist is the focus of attention of all three figures, as if they have foreknowledge of Christ’s later sacrifice for humankind.