West Building Audio Tour: American and European Paintings, 18th–20th Centuries
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.
To listen to information about a work of art, enter the stop number in the box below, select go, and press the play button when the stop appears. Please be mindful of other visitors and use headphones while listening to the audio tour.
|French Impressionist Paintings, 19th Century||American and European Paintings, 18th–20th Centuries|
|Italian Renaissance Paintings, 13th–16th Centuries||Dutch and European Paintings, 15th–18th Centuries|
- Madame Moitessier
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s painting of Ines Moitessier, the daughter of a wealthy government official and wife of a lace merchant, is perhaps less a portrayal of the woman herself than a statement of her social status and the artist’s own technical virtuosity. Ingres painstakingly depicted the luxurious trappings of his subject’s environment, from the velvet brocade wall covering and gilded furnishings that surround her to the glittering jewels that adorn her person and the exquisitely rendered lace that embellishes her dress. Her smooth, alabaster-like flesh and softly round face give her the air of a classical sculpture, serene but distant.
- 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 Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s striking group portrait depicts a glamorous aristocrat, the marquise de Rougé, flanked on the right by her two young sons and on the left by her friend the marquise de Pezay. Although dressed in the height of fashion, the affectionately intertwined sitters betray a casual intimacy often seen in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits and for which the artist was much appreciated. Like Vigée Le Brun, who fled France in 1789, the sitters were personally affected by the French Revolution—both of the marquises left the country around the time of the fall of the Bastille.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Elizabeth Linley’s exceptional soprano voice and beauty brought her professional success in concerts and festivals in Bath and London. After marrying Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1773 she left her career to support and participate in the activities of her husband, who was a noted politician, playwright, and orator. Mrs. Sheridan is shown here at the age of 31, a mature and elegant woman. Merged into the landscape, her gracious form bends to the curve of the trees behind her. The distinct textures of rocks, foliage, silk, and hair are unified by the strong, animated rhythms of the brushwork.
- 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.
- Soap Bubbles
In this painting by Jean Siméon Chardin, a boy poised on a windowsill blows a soap bubble. Both he and the younger boy next to him are fully absorbed in the activity. However, for the 18th-century viewer, bubbles were not only a form of entertainment, but also symbols of the transience of life. Although the work gives the illusion of capturing two youths in a candid moment, Chardin carefully constructed his composition. The focus of the painting is the circular, translucent bubble, which glistens against the warm brown tones of the canvas.
- 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.
- Lake Lucerne
Albert Bierstadt’s painting offers a sweeping view of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, with the village of Brunnen in the middle ground and alpine peaks in the distance. Though an image of mountain grandeur, Lake Lucerne also contains numerous pastoral vignettes—a harvest scene near the center, a religious procession at the right, and a camp at the left. In the spring of 1858 the artist sent the painting to New York for the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design. The picture caused a sensation, and Bierstadt was hailed as a bright new star on the American art stage.
- Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates)
Not wishing to waste time posing for an artist, this wife of a New York importer industriously attends to her sewing. Yet Gilbert Stuart’s brilliant paint manipulation generates a verve few other artists on either side of the Atlantic could have matched. Every passage contains some technical tour de force, employing a variety of thick or thin, opaque or translucent oil paints for the fabrics, needle, thimble, wedding band, flesh, and fingernails. It is little wonder that this has become one of America’s most famous paintings, both as an artistic masterpiece and as a visual symbol of the early republic’s rectitude.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Allies Day, May 1917
A patriotic whirlwind overtook midtown Manhattan as the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917. On Fifth Avenue, the British, French, and American flags were displayed prominently during parades honoring America’s allies. The colorful pageantry inspired Childe Hassam, who dedicated this picture “to the coming together of [our] three peoples in the fight for democracy.” Hassam selected a high vantage point overlooking a crowded urban thoroughfare to achieve an illusion of dramatic spatial recession.
- Nonchaloir (Repose)
The woman in repose is John Singer Sargent’s niece, Rose-Marie Ormond Michel. In keeping with his newfound preference for informal figure studies, Sargent depicted Rose-Marie as a languid, anonymous figure absorbed in poetic reverie. The reclining woman, casually posed in an atmosphere of consummate luxury, appears to be the epitome of nonchalance—the painting’s original title. Sargent seems to have been documenting the end of an era, for the lingering aura of turn-of-the-century gentility and elegant indulgence conveyed here would soon be shattered by massive political and social upheaval in the early 20th century.
- The Shipwreck
Claude-Joseph Vernet brought a fresh approach to the tradition of landscape painting, injecting a sense of immediacy and empirical observation into his art, in keeping with Enlightenment ideals of the time. His representations of the fluctuating effects of natural conditions upon landscape and marine settings made him one of the most sought-after artists of his day. In The Shipwreck, Vernet depicted the destructive ravages of nature. A ship has run aground in the midst of a violent storm, leaving its passengers at the mercy of the elements. In contrast, a now-lost companion piece showed a peaceful harbor scene bathed in moonlight.