Arts and Culture

The National Gallery of Art: Five Must-See Pieces of Art

The National Gallery of Art was created in 1937 by a joint resolution of Congress when it accepted the fantastic art collection of Andrew W. Mellon. Now it's a museum that's fully funded by the American government. With Uncle Sam footing the bill, there's no excuse not to visit.

Ginevra De' Benci, 1474
Leonardo da Vinci
"Ginevra De' Benci" is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the United States, and that's why she's first on this exclusive list. Her portrait is among da Vinci's earliest experiments in the new medium of oil paint, as evidenced by some wrinkling on the canvas' surface.

Da Vinci painted Ginevra's pose with a subtle 3-dimensionality and created her portrait in an outdoor setting. These 2 factors make the painting very different from conventional portraits and hint at how da Vinci would revolutionize painting during the Renaissance.

There's no question that the painting was executed with the kind of talent that has become synonymous with da Vinci, but it's sometimes more fun to ask why it was painted. At the time, there were generally 2 occasions that called for a woman's portrait -- engagement or marriage. In the case of this portrait, 1 theory is that her husband ordered it, but another suggests it was a gift from a lover, Bernardo Bembo. The clue to this second theory lies on the back of the painting, which contains Ginevra's personal motto, "Beauty adorns nature." Nothing out of the ordinary there -- at that time, most wealthy individuals had personal mottoes. However, in 1991, the National Gallery conducted x-ray testing and revealed a second personal motto, "Virtue and honor." This was not the motto of Ginevra's husband, but rather the poet, Bernardo Bembo.

Personal intrigue aside, this da Vinci beauty stands alone on American soil and is a must-see at the National Gallery.

Woman with a Parasol, 1875
Claude Monet
Like "Ginevra De' Benci," "Woman with a Parasol" is an important and beautiful piece of art with an interesting personal backstory. Monet and Camille, the woman pictured here, were lovers. When Monet's parents discovered their relationship, they demanded Monet leave Camille or be cut off financially. Subsequently, Monet left Camille penniless and pregnant in Paris.

Two years later, Monet faced being drafted into the French army, but since married men were exempt from the draft, Monet sought out Camille and married her.

Monet then began to paint Camille in day-to-day images, like this 1 capturing a walk with their son. The color and animated brushwork enhances the liveliness of the moment. Freedom of the subjects, surroundings, color and technique are hallmarks of Monet's style.

The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David
By 1812 Napoleon, who began his career as an army general, had seized control of the French government and named himself emperor. Now seen as 1 of the most infamous tyrants in world history, at the time Napoleon wanted nothing more than to have the public on his side.

This portrait was commissioned with that purpose in mind -- a bit of 19th-century positive publicity. The painter, Jacques-David Louis was considered the number 1 image-maker to the French elite, and careful examination of this portrait reveals subtle assertions of Napoleon's power hidden in a very ordinary setting.

Napoleon is dressed in his uniform as a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. His pose -- the slightly hunched shoulders and hand inserted into his vest -- contrasts the formality of his uniform. In addition, his cuffs are unbuttoned, his leggings wrinkled and his hair disheveled.

Napoleon's image was meant to convey that he had spent the night in his study composing the Napoleonic Code. Details such as the almost-extinguished candles, the quill pen and papers scattered on the desk, and the clock on the wall pointing to 4:13 a.m. all support this meaning.

Symbols of power are also located throughout the work -- the sword on his chair and the prominent display of the word "code" on the papers. Even the fabric on his chair, featuring golden bees, communicates his industriousness.

Woman Holding a Balance, 1664
Johannes Vermeer
Until recently, this painting was titled Girl Weighing Pearls as it was thought the white spots on the balance pans were pearls. In 1976, the National Gallery conducted a microscopic analysis, and discovered that Vermeer's "pearls" were actually only reflections of light.

This discovery not only changed the title of the painting but its meaning as well. The young woman is weighing empty pans, not objects synonymous with wealth and status; she is pondering the value of something spiritual and not material.

Behind her on the wall is a painting called The Last Judgment, which emphasizes her search for life's meaning and whether her own has been lived in temperance or moderation.

A Boy for Meg, 1962
Andy Warhol
In 1962 Andy Warhol painted a replica of the New York Post announcing the birth of Princess Margaret's son. Sister to Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret was a royal who liked to party, spending many a night bar-hopping (and, it's rumored, bed-hopping).

"A Boy for Meg" capitalizes on a national obsession with the lives of celebrities, 1 that has grown over the decades. This painting also foreshadows the silkscreened depictions of celebrities Warhol would commence this same year, including one of Marilyn Monroe also on display at the National Gallery.

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