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West Building Audio Tour: Dutch and European Paintings, 15th–18th 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.

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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.


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    Stop 221
    Johannes Vermeer artist
    Dutch, 1632 - 1675
    Girl with the Red Hat 

    A girl turns outward, her mouth half-opened and her eyes lit with expectancy. The lushness of her blue robes, the flaming red of her hat, and the subtle interplay of green and rose tones in her face give her a vibrancy unique in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Particularly striking are the light reflections on the right lion-head finial of her chair, which have the diffuse characteristic of unfocused points of light in a photograph. This optical effect is found in a camera obscura, and it seems likely that Vermeer here attempted to capture the impression of an image seen in that device.

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    Stop 214
    Willem Claesz Heda artist
    Dutch, 1594 - 1680
    Banquet Piece with Mince Pie 

    At first sight, Willem Claesz Heda’s largest known still-life painting appears to welcome the viewer to a sumptuous feast. Yet pewter plates teeter precariously over the table’s edge, while a translucent goblet and a silver tazza have toppled over, indicating that the feast has already been enjoyed. A number of objects in the painting, such as the snuffed-out candle, hint at the transience of worldly existence. 

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    Stop 250
    Rembrandt van Rijn artist
    Dutch, 1606 - 1669
    Self-Portrait 

    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. 

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    Judith Leyster artist
    Dutch, 1609 - 1660
    Self-Portrait 

    Judith Leyster depicted herself at her easel, briefly interrupting work on a painting of a violin player to interact with the viewer. By juxtaposing her hand holding a brush with the hand and bow of the violin player, Leyster cleverly compared the art of creating ephemeral music with the art of creating timeless paintings. She holds the tools of her trade—a palette, a cloth, and no fewer than 18 brushes. In reality she would not have worn the elegant dress and lace-trimmed collar while at work in her studio. As a master in her own right, a rarity for a female artist at the time, Leyster established her own workshop and had paying students. 

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    Stop 253
    Rembrandt van Rijn artist
    Dutch, 1606 - 1669
    The Mill 

    Nineteenth-century connoisseurs considered Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Mill to be one of the master’s greatest creations. They celebrated the dramatic silhouette of the mill against a dark, stormy sky, unaware that the romantic aura and rich golden tone of the scene were caused by discolored varnish. Rather, they attributed the heavy atmosphere to Rembrandt’s frame of mind during a period of severe financial difficulties. Restoration of the painting has since removed the old varnish. Under the blue and steel-gray sky, the bright sails on the vanes draw the viewer’s eyes to the mill, which is symbolically portrayed as a guardian protecting the land and its people.

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    Stop 232
    Jan Steen artist
    Dutch, 1625/1626 - 1679
    The Dancing Couple 

    Jan Steen’s paintings elicit a warm reaction to the lives of ordinary people. All five senses are represented in this work, in which two young musicians play for a dancing couple while other people in the vine-covered arbor flirt, eat, drink, or smoke, and children amuse themselves with their toys. The grinning figure on the left who caresses the chin of the woman drinking from an elegant wine glass is none other than Steen himself. Despite the apparent frivolity of the scene, Steen used emblematic references such as cut flowers, broken eggshells, and soap bubbles to warn the viewer about the transience of sensual pleasures. 

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    Stop 272
    Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck painter
    Dutch, 1606/1609 - 1662
    Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer 

    With great bravura, this fashionably clad member of the Haarlem civic guard stands with one arm akimbo. His proud bearing, accented by the panache of his shimmering satin costume and plumed hat, attests to the great sense of confidence felt by the Dutch at the height of their golden age. The blue standard and sash identify Andries Stilte’s company and rank, but the rest of his outfit displays his personal taste, his family’s wealth, and his status as a bachelor. Stilte commissioned Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck to paint him wearing his sumptuous pink costume right before he resigned his rank to marry. As a married militia officer, Stilte would have worn an elegant black outfit.

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    Stop 280
    Sir Peter Paul Rubens artist
    Flemish, 1577 - 1640
    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. 

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    Sir Anthony van Dyck artist
    Flemish, 1599 - 1641
    Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson 

    Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, exerted a strong influence on English court fashion and protocol. Anthony van Dyck portrayed her dressed for the hunt in a brilliant blue satin riding costume with a delicate lace collar, instead of the stiff and formal Elizabethan ruff still widely in use. The queen’s graceful pose and demure expression are at once regal and endearing, and her stylish hat and shimmering dress create a sense of vibrancy. The queen’s love of entertainment is symbolized by the presence of 14-year-old Sir Jeffrey Hudson and Pug the monkey, both royal favorites. The orange tree in the background pays visual homage to Henrietta Maria’s powerful Florentine ancestors the Medicis, whose crest contains five gold balls thought to represent oranges from the family’s renowned citrus tree collection.

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    Stop 510
    Jan van Eyck artist
    Netherlandish, c. 1390 - 1441
    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.

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    Jan Gossaert artist
    Netherlandish, c. 1478 - 1532
    Portrait of a Merchant 

    A merchant is seated in a cramped yet cozy space, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Scattered over the table are such useful items as a talc shaker to dry ink, an ink pot, scales for weighing coins, and a metal receptacle for sealing wax, quill pens, and paper. Attached to the wall are balls of twine and batches of papers labeled “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” The sitter’s cautious glance and prim mouth may suggest the insecurity and apprehension that haunted bankers in the 1530s, when the prevailing moral attitude was summed up by the Dutch humanist Erasmus: “When did avarice reign more largely and less punished?”

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    Rogier van der Weyden artist
    Netherlandish, 1399/1400 - 1464
    Portrait of a Lady 

    Although the identity of the sitter is unknown, her elegantly simple costume, plucked eyebrows, and hairline indicate that she belongs in an upper class of Burgundian court society. The stylish costume does not distract attention from the sitter; the dress almost merges with the background. The spreading headdress frames and focuses attention upon her face. In contrast to the spareness of execution in most of the painting, the gold filigree of her belt buckle is rendered with meticulous precision. The scarlet belt serves as a foil to set off her delicately clasped hands.

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    Georges de La Tour artist
    French, 1593 - 1652
    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.

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    Stop 532
    Matthias Grünewald artist
    German, c. 1475/1480 - 1528
    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.

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    Canaletto artist
    Venetian, 1697 - 1768
    The Square of Saint Mark's, Venice 

    Canaletto’s paintings of Venice are among the works for which he is best known. Here, the city’s central square is framed by Saint Mark’s Basilica and the rose-colored Doge’s Palace. In a time before photography, Canaletto painted souvenirs that evoked what tourists likely remembered, rather than what they actually saw. This view includes the Bacino San Marco, the harbor at the city’s entrance, even though in reality it is not visible from this angle. Myriad figures enliven the scene and present a portrait of Venetian society in the waning years of the republic. 

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