National Gallery (Washington, D.C.)
Artists Study Paintings
Artists learn to paint by studying paintings. They go to museums to study paintings, not just look at them.
They study the surface to which the paint was applied (wood or canvas or plaster, in the case of frescoes).
They study the tools used in applying the paint (a selection of brushes or painting knives), and they study the technique used (broad swaths of paint or tiny dots, thickly applied paint with a high degree of texture or thinly applied paint that’s as smooth as glass).
They also study the schools of painting (Renaissance, Impressionism, or Cubism, for instance), and they learn why the schools or styles of painting developed, who were the major and minor artists associated with that school, and why the school of painting died out, with no new canvases being created.
They study color—did the artist use primary colors only, or just pastels or muted tones? Did the artist use colors straight out of the tube of oil paint or were all colors blended?
I majored in Fine Arts in college. I was very fortunate in that I attended a state university in New Jersey which was situated no more than an hour’s drive from New York City (Manhattan). I had access to numerous museums and art galleries, and I would spend countless hours studying paintings.
Colonial Art in America
The American colonists did not disapprove of art, but they wanted their own art. They painted portraits, many of which look very provincial by today’s standards.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, Americans had neither the means nor the time to develop significant collections of paintings from Europe. They had no paintings to study. With no collections, American painters, with the exception of the few who were able to study in Europe, remained provincial.
No Museums until the 20th Century
The cure for the provincialism in American art was to study, learn, and understand the traditions of European painting. To do this, it was necessary to collect European art. This started happening around 1900. Museums were established on the east coast of the United States and in Chicago.
A privately endowed institution, the Corcoran Gallery, was established in Washington, D.C. in 1869, but there wasn’t any national art museum in the nation’s capital.
Establishment and Building of the National Gallery
The establishment of a national gallery was conceived, founded, and endowed by Andrew W. Mellon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the administrations of Presidents Harding and Coolidge, and was ambassador to the Court of St. James’s under President Hoover. As early as 1927, Mr. Mellon discussed the importance of having a national collection of paintings and sculpture, but it wasn’t until 1937 that a piece of land was selected for the gallery.
Ground was broken for the National Gallery, one of the largest marble buildings in the world, on a piece of land halfway between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Mr. Mellon wanted the building to be erected in a style that would be timeless and that would harmonize with existing buildings in Washington. Classicism, the style which began in Greece, developed in Rome, and was revived in the Renaissance, was selected.
The National Gallery opened to the public in 1941.
National Gallery of Art
Paintings by American Artists
The National Gallery of Art's collection includes paintings by artists from many countries. The paintings I'm showcasing in this article were all painted by artists who were born in the United States.
Gilbert Stuart's "Mrs. Richard Yates"
Gilbert Stuart (1755 - 1828) was born in Narragansett, Massachusets. He journeyed to London in 1769, at the age of 14, and studied with artist Benjamin West for five years. Stuart became one of London's most fashionable and sought-after portraitists.
"Mrs. Richard Yates" was painted in 1793, the year that Gilbert Stuart returned to the United States. Catherine Brass Yates was the wife of a New York businessman, an importer of products from England and India. She insisted upon sewing during the entire time she sat for Stuart's portrait.
James Mc Neill Whistler's "The White Girl (Symphony in White No. 1)"
James Mc Neill Whistler (1834 - 1903) was another expatriate painter. Whistler was born in Massachusetts, but spent most of his time in Europe. Whistler painted "The White Girl (Symphony in White No. 1)" in 1863 while living in Paris, France. The artist was interested in Spanish painting during this period in his life. His painting technique and use of color are very reminiscent of that of Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez.
Mary Cassatt's "The Boating Party"
Mary Cassatt, the daughter of a stockbroker, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1845. Cassatt lived most of her life in France. Her art grew out of her Parisian contacts with the artists in the Impressionist school of painting, and she exhibited her paintings with those artists.
Cassatt was most influenced by the work of Parisian artist Edgar Degas. Her style is a simplified version of his. Cassatt limited her subjects primarily to theater scenes and mother and child. I enjoy viewing the paintings of Edgar Degas very much. The paintings of Mary Cassatt leave me cold. Perhaps this is due to her oversimplification of style.
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