Gift #1184: National Gallery of Art

Hello dear readers!  Welcome to March – I’m so delighted that we’ve had some sunshine and warmer temps here.  January and February are really hard on me and I feel great relief upon entering March.  Now there’s just the time change this weekend to contend with…  But last weekend, Mom and I went to the local art museum and went through some of the galleries and outdoor gardens.  It tickled my mind that I needed to share with you my experience at the National Gallery of Art in London.  So, spoiler alert, there will be a lot of photos.  And the artwork started before we even got into the building.  There was fabulous chalk art on the sidewalks leading up to the Gallery.

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Aren’t these amazing?!  Part of me felt rather foolish taking pictures of these on the doorstep to the world’s treasures of great art.  But then I thought these are beautiful and bringing joy into the lives of all who pass by, and in that way they are every bit as important and special as the art within the Gallery’s walls.  Besides, it was the first time I’d ever seen real sidewalk chalk art outside of Mary Poppins!  And that squirrel…

Now, a word about the content of today’s post.  It was very important to my mom and I that we view the art on display in chronological order.  There are 4 wings at the Gallery, loosely divided along timelines, and what I’ll show today are highlights from the Medieval and Renaissance eras.  We valiantly went through each gallery, starting with #44 – please don’t ask me about the numbering scheme – it gave me an eye twitch.  To make the visit more exciting, the galleries weren’t really in numerical order, so it took a lot of backtracking and wandering about to find each gallery, but that was the only way to ensure we’d see everything.  Oh, and a few gallery numbers were missing – as in, they didn’t actually have a gallery #3 and #7, but for some reason they just skipped those numbers and went from #6 to #8.  Why??  In another bit of marketing brilliance, you also had to pay to get a map…. evil genius I tell you.  But now to art.

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The crowning jewel in the Medieval collection is this lovely gilded diptych.  The deer is absolutely lovely – in fact, it is on the cover of the guide we got in advance.  The deer is actually the back of the piece, which is the oldest in the collection, dating about 1395.  The white hart was the royal symbol of Richard II and this piece commemorates his reign.

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Understandably, there were hundreds of paintings of saints from the Medieval period. This one of St. Jerome was my favorite of all of them – I loved the imagery of him pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw.

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“The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck was one of the pieces I was most excited about seeing with my own eyes.  My family enjoys documentaries and we have a mini series about 8 works of art that we’ve seen more times than I can count.  This is one of the paintings that is featured and it is rich in symbolism and detail.  I was surprised to find that it is actually a rather small work and it was one of the few that you couldn’t get right up close to.  It’s a fascinating piece and one you could stare at for hours, finding all the special details in this scene.

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In contrast, “The Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci was of an impressively large scale, taking up nearly the entire wall in its enclave.  This depicts the Christ Child and John the Baptist as infants with Mary.  In a DVD about the Gallery that I received as a Christmas present, there’s a section on the framing of certain of their works of art.  This frame was acquired at auction from the 1700s I believe and there was enough of the woodwork to fit this piece perfectly.

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The Gallery has its share of mythology as well as sacred.  This fantastical scene depicts Orpheus, who had the power to enchant all living creatures as well as inanimate objects with his music.  I loved the menagerie of animals shown here and the way the eye travels from the foreground back behind the trees to the forested ruins and open sky behind.

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One of my favorite ways of exploring a painting is by taking closeups of certain areas to highlight a particular focus.  For example, this photo was a small part of a scene depicting the death of a mythical character.  While not thrilled with the action part of the scene, I thought the background was magical and created its own story.

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We were making admirable progress, considering all the galleries full of amazing treasures to behold, but things came to a screeching halt when we found a gallery entirely of still life pieces.  This is one of my very favorite genres of art – especially those done by Flemish masters.  The entire room was like a jewelry box.  This one by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (isn’t that a faulous name?) was so precisely painted it was more like a photograph than a painting.  The little butterfly looked as if it would fly off any second.

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“Glass Vase with Flowers” by Jan van Huysm was a spectacular composition too.  My heart fluttered with joy over the delicate nest.  The powerful use of light made the  flowers luminous against the dark background – this is an aspect I find irresistible in still life paintings.  It speaks to me of the way beauty draws attention even (or especially) in dark circumstances and they are eloquent life lessons for me.

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Still life is a particular amenable genre for taking closeups – I took many in this gallery.  There are so many details to enjoy – the curve of a stem, a flower with a butterfly dancing nearby, a spiderweb in the corner, a grasshopper on the table, the way flowers move from light to shadow…  I was delighted to find that a woman painted this masterpiece.  Rachel Ruysch created “Flowers in a Vase” in 1685 – her father was the head of Amsterdam Botanical Garden, so it’s easy to see where she found inspiration.

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“Insects with Common Hawthorn and Forget-Me-Not” by Jan van Kessel the Elder breaks from traditional still life form.  Instead of a formal presentation, van Kessel arranges the elements of a still life more like a curiosity cabinet.  The expert light and shadowing made me think that it was an actual insect collection for a moment.  And may I just mention that the names of still life paintings make me laugh with their utter literalness.  No hint of imagination whatsoever, which is ironic given the prolific talents of their creators.  I would have called it “Collection from a Walk in the Woods” or “How many insects can you find on a hawthorn leaf ?”

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As we moved into the 1600s, we ran across this touching scene of “The Infant Saint John with the Lamb” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.  The banner along the rocks reads “Behold the Lamb of God”.  I loved this one so much – it’s incredibly tender.

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Another of my favorites is “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio.  I love this account in the Gospels where a newly risen Christ walks with some of His followers and then shares a meal with them.  As he blesses the food, they suddenly realize that it is their Lord who has been with them all that time.  It is captured with great warmth and emotion here with skillful hand and delicate brush.   The peaceful serenity and love on Christ’s face draws you in, even as the surprised reaction from the others at table makes you hold your breath in anticipation at what is revealed.  I spent a long time with this magnetic scene.

I hope you enjoyed a stroll through the early artwork of the National Gallery.  Did you have a favorite from this selection?  Next time, I’ll share the highlights from the 1700s – 1900s, encompassing the great eras of British landscapes and European Impressionism.  Until then, may you find beauty all around you.

Blessings to you,

Sarah

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1 Response to Gift #1184: National Gallery of Art

  1. Eliza Waters says:

    I, too, love the botanical still life paintings. And Da Vinci was such a master of light, as well. A great Gallery collection, for certain.

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