Last week I was in Washington D.C. for work. Fortunately, I had time to visit a few museums while I was there, including the National Gallery, which is a great museum. I had been to two of them before. I really enjoyed visiting them again soon enough to remember what I had liked before and what I wanted to see again.

Now that I’ve been to Belgium and saw an exhibit about Dutch and Flemish painters, I was particularly interested in seeing the Gallery’s Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries. When I was there in 2009, I was interested in a female Dutch painter, Judith Leyster. Initially, I thought it would be nice to see her work again, but the exhibit has changed since then. While I certainly like her work, the new stuff was also great.

Perhaps my favorite this time was Dutch painter Abraham De Verwer’s “View of Hoorn” from about 1650:

I love the color palette, the browns and oranges, and the painting’s overall simplicity. Here’s part of what the museum’s web site says about the painting:

In this atmospheric painting, Abraham de Verwer has depicted the Dutch city of Hoorn from the south, the view that greeted ships as they sailed the Zuiderzee toward this important port that served as a major center for trade to the Baltic, the West Indies, and the East Indies. From De Verwer’s low and distant vantage point, Hoorn’s distinctive city profile is barely distinguishable. To the right of the three-masted sailing ship in the distance is the tower of the massive structure at the harbor’s entrance. The towers of the city’s Noorderkerk (North Church), Grote Kerk (Great Church), and Oosterkerk (East Church) are just visible above the buildings lining the harbor and the masts of ships moored within it, all of which De Verwer silhouetted in muted browns against the gray sky.

It’s a relatively simple painting visually, but I think it’s absolutely lovely. Dutch painting seems rather staid and somber. This painting represents that tendency beautifully.

Another painting I really liked was Johannes Vermeer‘s “Girl with a Flute“:

I love this painting’s almost impressionistic quality. Vermeer is one of my favorite painters of all time, but this painting seems different from his more famous works, like “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or “The Milkmaid.” It’s far less realistic in its brush strokes and technique than these other works. It also uses less color than many of his works do. I love it!

But it wasn’t just the Dutch and Flemish paintings that I liked. BartolomĂ© Esteban Murillo‘s “Two Women at a Window” is very similar to a painting PJ and I saw at the Guggenheim in New York years ago, especially in its color scheme or browns, reds, and black:

His paintings seem to evoke the transgressive but in a subtle way — women looking out a women could be soliciting rather than just innocently looking out a window. Here’s what the museum’s web site says about the painting:

While Murillo is best known for works with religious themes, he also produced a number of genre paintings of figures from contemporary life engaged in ordinary pursuits. These pictures often possess a wistful charm; Two Women at a Window is a striking example. A standing woman attempts to hide a smile with her shawl as she peeks from behind a partially opened shutter, while a younger woman leans on the window ledge, gazing out at the viewer with amusement. The difference in their ages might indicate a chaperone and her charge, a familiar duo in upper-class Spanish households. Covering one’s smile or laugh was considered good etiquette among the aristocracy. An engraving made one hundred years after the painting suggested, however, an entirely different interpretation of the women. Its title, Las Gallegas (The Galician Women), implied that the women were prostitutes, because Galicia, a poor province in western Spain, provided many of Seville’s courtesans. Today, scholars tend toward the first explanation of these two casually attired ladies.

They don’t look like prostitutes to me, but I like this possibility a lot.

A somewhat bizarre painting that caught my eye was Tanzio da Varallo‘s “Saint Sebastian“:

The National Gallery describes this painting as having a “fevered intensity.” I agree. It’s a weirdly disturbing painting to me. Paintings of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian are usually more homoerotic; this one seems different. The gallery web site says, “The visual excitement of Tanzio’s portrayal serves to convey Sebastian’s state of emotional transport and transcendence of bodily pain.” That transport is partly what usually seems homoerotic, but this image doesn’t seem like that to me. I think it’s got something to do with the placement of the body — it’s less on display than usual in these paintings. It made me wonder whether all painters of Saint Sebastian were in fact “gay.”

There were lots of other paintings and sculpture that I loved in the National Gallery. One example of the latter is this image of the Virgin and Child with St. John:

I don’t usually go for this kind of imagery, but I think this is beautiful. I wish I were a rich fifteenth-century aristocrat, I would want this for my summer home!

The National Gallery is one of my favorite museums. I had hoped to have time to see a special exhibit about Venice, Canaletto, and his rivals, but I ran out of time (the museum was closing). Hopefully I’ll be back soon!

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