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Monday, December 26, 2016

American history on tour at the National Gallery of Art

 Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Allies Day - May, 1917, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

One of several scheduled docent-led tours at the National Gallery of Art is a quick (less than an hour) study in American history which, last Friday, touched on colonial America and ended with the beginning of America's role in World War I and the painting, Allies Day, May 1917 by Childe Hassam (1859-1935). (Gallery 70)
Docent Jill Brett at Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Allies Day - May, 1917, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

At that last stop on the tour conducted in the West Building, docent Jill Brett mentioned the place in the painting (Fifth Avenue at East 52nd Street in New York City; methinks President-Elect Donald J. Trump would approve!), comparing it to a similar work by the French artist, Claude Monet, which she displayed from a large guide book she carried around during her talk.  

Hassam's may be considered America's version of Impressionism, under whose spell, Hassam fell. (I don't know which came first: Hassam's or Monet's, but I would bet Monet's. Here is a link to his complete works, if you can find it which would have the year. Hassam painted his in 1917.)
 Docent Jill Brett at Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), John Beale Bordley, 1770, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

Ms. Brett briefly talked about America's colonial period, and the portraiture in 1770 of John Beale Bordley by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Bordley was a politician and the artist's close friend and benefactor who sent Peale to London in 1766 for training. 

In this work found in Gallery 62, Peale highlights America's and Bordley's successful agricultural pursuits and the tyranny Britain imposed on its young upstart which the painting warns will not endure. Crumbled at Bordley's feet is a British document of civil rights, which the Mother Country chose to ignore in its settlement across the sea.
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Watson and the Shark, 1778, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

Watson and the Shark, 1778 by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) in Gallery 60B would make any less-than-art enthusiast take a second look at Copley's interpretation of a true tale about a 14-year-old lad, Brook Watson, attacked by a shark while swimming off the coast of Cuba and losing either:
1. His right foot (National Gallery's description) or 
2. His right leg below the knee (Ms. Brett's description. I suppose they could be the same thing because if you lose your right leg first, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about, you do the shark escape and scream for help, that's what t'was all about.

At the time of the artist's rendering, few had ever seen such violence depicted on canvas. Ms. Brett pointed out that it was a first for a shark with lips, and whatever Mr. Watson lost, the peg leg he wore for the remainder of his life supported his stature as a British merchant and politician.  Mr. Copley was a totally self-taught artist.
Docent Jill Brett contrasts Presidents John Adams (left) and Thomas Jefferson, both by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

In Gallery 60A at the trio of American presidents by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Ms. Brett talked chiefly about the contrast between President John Adams (1735-1826), a vain man (Stuart dressed him accordingly), who was born poor and died rich, and President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was born rich and died poor. (Those of us in Washington, D.C. are reminded daily of  Jefferson's accomplishments which are not necessary to cite here, and of Adams, I shall only say neither he nor his son were elected to a second term, unlike Jefferson who was. Is there a John Adams Memorial in town? Enough said.) 
 A trio of presidents, all painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. From left are Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, all admiring their brief biographies as told by Docent Jill Brett/Photo, Patricia Leslie

Stuart's George Washington (1732-1799) is one of four owned by the National Gallery and one of 100 or so likenesses Stuart made of our first president, drawn so the artist could make a lot of money which "he spent faster than he made," Ms. Brett said.
 Docent Jill Brett talks about the allegory, Autumn - On the Hudson River, 1860 by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

Next on the tour (Gallery 64) was an allegory, Autumn - On the Hudson River, 1860, by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) who drew the evolution of nature and emerging urbanity, beginning a roll from the left to the right and center of the canvas.  Cropsey painted it from memory in his London studio, and Ms. Brett said Queen Victoria saw it at the Royal Academy.

The artist became so irritated with the British skeptics who doubted his accuracy of the leaves' colors (they are brighter in the U.S.), that he carried actual autumn leaves from the U.S. to the painting in Britain and put them in a vase beside his work! (Attention, Brits: Our leaves are better than your leaves, if color is any measure, and by Trump (!), I say it is!)
Docent Jill Brett talks about the Shaw Memorial, 1900, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

Ms. Brett was certainly not going to bypass the magnificent and glorious sculpture by Augustus Saint -Gaudens (1848-1907) of black soldiers from the Massachusetts regiment going off to fight in the Civil War. Half the troops died at the Battle of Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863 outside the harbor at Charleston, S.C., including their leader, Colonel Robert Shaw, whose namesake graces "the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century." (Gallery 66)
 Right and Left, 1909 by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. with Docent Jill Brett/Photo, Patricia Leslie

Two ducks plunging into a body of water was another stopping point for Ms. Brett whose short explanation about the work was welcome news to me who has wondered about its significance for many years. 

In Gallery 68 hangs Right and Left by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) who drew it in 1909, the year before he died, perhaps sensing his own imminent death.  The birds are hunters' targets (surprise!), and, much like our own, their short lives are extinguished in a flash.

Ms. Brett said the work can represent "the last moment of life, the first moment of death."  She pointed out the unusual perspective: We fly with the ducks, which is a fitting place to end this description.  Carpe diem!
 A nice place to meet up for an art history tour! The Grand Rotunda, West Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Photo, Patricia Leslie

If you take the tour and are so lucky to have Ms. Brett as your guide, you will find a knowledgeable, sincere, and down-to-earth leader who invites and answers questions at the end of every stop.  

At each painting, she supplied historical background, significance, and set the stage for what drove the artist to put his brush to the canvas. Timing and context are everything when it comes to art, she said, pointing out shadowed background, and obscured parts undetected by an untrained eye. 

The Friday group of about 15 visitors, young and old, American and foreign, expanded and shrunk and grew again as the tour weaved its way in the galleries, picking up interested "passengers" along the way and dropping them off at various points.

American Stories  is one of a series of nine free, scheduled daily tours at the National Gallery which offers other tours in foreign languages, for the hard of hearing and the blind, for school groups, and for the self-guided. You will not be bored.  You will not leave "unlearned." Guaranteed, or I shall pay your next admission.

What: American Stories in Art 

When: 2:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday and Thursday. The Nati
onal Gallery of Art is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sunday when it is open 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. The National Gallery is closed on New Year's Day.

Where: Meet at the Grand Rotunda, West Building, the National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission charge: No charge

Metro stations for the National Gallery of Art:
Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information
: 202-737-4215

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