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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Grandeur of the National Gallery of Art

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

June 23, 2022

As we passed two Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art slowly approached us along Constitution Avenue. Unlike most large-scale museums on the East Coast fronted by grand stairways hosting busy crowds, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington D.C. greets us with a looming presence over a quiet driveway leading up to three heavy bronze doors (figure 2). When I crane my neck upwards, I can see the Capitol Building to the East and the Washington Monument to the West. Its Neoclassical-styled architecture –– notably a Roman rotunda and a Greek frontispiece –– further indicates its central location in the National Mall.

Figure 1: Photo taken by me of the interior dome of the National Gallery of Art


The NGA predominantly features American and European art. The gallery began as the private art collection of Andrew W. Mellon –– a financier and prominent politician during the first half of the twentieth century. What was initially envisioned as "a new gallery for old masters" evolved into the now extensive collection that spans from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to Impressionism to Modern Art. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces and sharp change of pace compared to the Phillips Collection, which I visited the day before (read about my visit here). The combination of pink and white marble structures and the high, skylighted ceilings emanated an air of aloofness.

Figure 2: Photo taken by me of the North Entrance of the National Gallery of Art

Figure 3: Photo taken by me of the interior fountain garden

The dome room was awe-inspiring (figure 1). Circled by sixteen monolithic monumental green marble columns, the coffered dome and oculus allude to the Pantheon in Rome (figure 4). Even the number of rings of coffers is exactly the five that adorn the Pantheon. However, what makes this an American interpretation of the Ancient architectural site rather than a replica are the friezes of bald eagles and olive wreaths that are recognizable elements from the American seal. At this point, one may wonder why governmental and museum buildings are all in the Neoclassical style. This obsession can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers and a key proponent of Neoclassical architecture in the United States. Jefferson established this design choice as a declaration of political ideologies for the new nation, using art to allude to the republican system of Rome and the democracy and enlightenment of Ancient Greece.

Figure 4: Comparison between the interior dome of the National Gallery of Art and Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, 1734, Giovanni Paolo Panini

Figure 5: Photo taken by me of the interior gallery hallway in the sculpture section

Favorite Works

In continuation with the theme of Ancient Greece, one of the first sculptures that caught my attention is Diana and Hound (figure 6) by Paul Manship. The lightness of Diana is simply delightful. She leaps forward while twisting her upper body to look back with her hound mirroring the same pose, emphasizing the dynamic movement of this work. We can almost feel the breeze from her drapery or hear the plucked note as the arrow springs off the bow. Manship, a prominent American sculptor during the Art Deco, created movement not with the Hellenistic style of exaggerated musculature or interweaved figures but by referring to the more ancient style of Archaic Greece (700-480 BCE) or Etruscans (900 BC–200 BCE). This influence is characterized by a mix of stylized elements, like the perfect curls of hair, and naturalistic features, like the use of generally accurate anatomy. In addition, Diana's unrealistically coordinated pose has a whimsical and playful undertone, a quality often found in Archaic or Etruscan works and what sets this piece apart from traditional sculptures.

Figure 6: Diana and a Hound, 1925, Paul Manship

I was thrilled to recognize Enthroned Madonna and Child (figure 7) from prior research into different perspectives on the "Byzantine Perspective" Wikipedia page. Byzantine perspective makes closer objects appear smaller and farther objects appear larger, which is the inverse of realistic perspective. The form of this work's dimensional space is most clearly identified by how right rectangular prisms are depicted. Madonna's throne and footstool are the identifiers in this work because we instinctively presume that all faces at each vertex form right angles. If you extend the line segments from the sides of the footstool, you will find that they intersect at a point "in front" of the figures into the gallery space.

The abstract gold background and the emotionally-neutral expressions of Madonna and Christ indicate that this piece was made during the Byzantine period. Due to a prior period of iconoclasm, depictions of biblical figures during this period were primarily two-dimensional and representative. Accurate perspective planes, which were first mathematically defined centuries later during the Renaissance, were not used at this time. We do not know whether the reverse perspective plane of Enthroned Madonna and Child is a conscious artistic choice or an unintentional result. However, from a modern perspective, I find this an inspirational work of art not on the groups of its realism but rather on its unique artistic vision.

Figure 7: Enthroned Madonna and Child, 1250-75, Unknown artist

Immediately, I recognized El Greco's Laocoön (figure 8) from a discussion in my AP Art History class a few months ago. To see it here is entirely ecstatic. In Greek mythology, Laocoön was a priest who hurled a spear at the Trojan horse to prove that it was hollow in an attempt to convince the Trojans that the horse was a ploy. However, the desecration of the sacred Trojan horse fiercely angered Athena. She sent two sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his two sons, securing the Greeks' victory. The most famous portrayal of this subject is the sculpture group Laocoön and His Sons (figure 9), which was unearthed in Rome in 1504. When El Greco created this painting more than a century later, his manneristic interpretation radically differed from the Hellenistic masterpiece. El Greco's elongated figures languishingly, almost erotically, struggle with the serpents. Overhead, the patches of pale light in the clouds symbolize the brewing violence, which is backdropped by an Italian cityscape during the Renaissance. On the other hand, the Laocoön sculpture group's canonical figures tense their muscles in agony, using a hierarchical scale to emphasize Laocoön. Given the historical and artistic value of the latter piece, El Greco most likely created Laocoön with the preceding work in mind. Comparing these two distinct works on the same subject shows how Western art has irrevocably transformed from the second century to the sixteenth century.

Figure 8: Laocoön, 1610-14, El Greco

Figure 9: Laocoön and His Sons (also known as Laocoön Group), Imperial period (Roman replica), Greek original by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus

Edgar Degas is most known for his works on ballet dancers (see figure 11 for example). Whether his medium is pastels, oil paint, or bronze sculpture, he depicts dancers in all their rhythmic and elegant movements. Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey (figure 10) initially seems to stray from the norm completely. However, there are more similarities than what may meet the eye. Ballet dancers and horses are rarely static subjects, often observed in the split second of a jump or gallop. His prowess in creating such a natural movement comes not from the absolute accuracy of forms but from accepting the limited pace of human vision. Degas uses hastily-drawn black outlines to paint the horses in varying degrees of finish. While one horse's head is painted three-dimensionally, the other is flatter and more understated. We can also see visible revisions he made to the arch of the horse's neck or the angle at which it bends its front hoof. Unlike many of his impressionist colleagues who focused on relatively still and unchanging landscapes and portraits, Degas chose to paint instantaneous movement like a well-timed photographer. Like the latter, Degas places his focal point at approximately one-third of the canvas's height from the bottom on the pink satin uniform of the fallen jockey, effectively creating a balanced canvas.

Figure 10: Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, 1866-97, Edgar Degas

Figure 11: Dancers on the Stage, 1889, Edgar Degas

Place Vintimille (figure 12) is hard to miss, even in a gallery full of Monet's and Van Gogh's. Its cross-cultural concept –– combining a screen with post-impressionistic painting –– is exquisitely unique. Screens were originally exported from China to the Japanese, who made their edits by simplifying the wooden structure to the frames and often adding a painted design. Given the Japonisme or obsession over Japanese art and design in France, Vuillard's works were no exception. He integrates the structural boldness of five connected vertical panels and his Nabis painting style, which blurs the transition between Impressionism and abstract art. The screen format allows the work to naturally have a more atmospheric quality than a flat canvas, drawing into both the artist's perspective overlooking the city park beneath his apartment and the commissioner's perspective using it as a fashionable and decorative room divider. I am mesmerized by Vuillard's brushwork, sometimes painting the details of singular leaves and other times briefly addressing the bricked street with rows of dashed lines. The versatility of Vuillard's style and technique recasts the most commonplace park of pedestrians, trees, traffic, and shrubbery into a vibrant memory of Parisian energy.

Figure 12: Place Vintimille, 1911, Edouard Vuillard


Beyond the works discussed in this post, the NGA also collects many paintings meaningful to the United States history, such as portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, making this institution a hub for American history and art enthusiasts alike. Most admirably, this was also the only museum that was free to the public. The NGA's clean and classic style of architecture makes visiting here feel like a proper art-viewing experience, and the works it houses are unquestionably significant. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through its marble hallways to discover masterpieces at the turn of a corner. At the same time, there is much left for me to explore further in the future, such as its Modern Art wing or the sculpture garden on the next block (see figure 13). Although the NGA may have started as a collection of the "old masters," it is now one of the most prominent Western art collections in the U.S.

Figure 13: Photo taken by me of the sculpture garden, which unfortunately closed when I attempted to visit

Works Cited

Works Cited "Edgar Degas | Dancers, Pink and Green | The Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

"Edgar Degas, Painter of the Dance." Drawing Demystified | Teaching the Fundamentals of Drawing, 19 Jan. 2020, Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

"Interior of the Pantheon, Rome." National Gallery of Art, Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

"Laocoön and His Sons." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 6 July 2022,ön_and_His_Sons. Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

"Reverse Perspective." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 22 June 2022, Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

"Thomas Jefferson, Monticello (article)." Khan Academy, Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.

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