What you’re missing overlooking Washington D.C.’s underappreciated art

Monuments, museums, politics, history, government – all good reasons to visit Washington, D.C. Why not art? Short of New York, D.C. has the best collection of art and art museums in the country, but that treasure is generally an afterthought to the visitors of our nation’s capital.

What are they missing?

The National Gallery of Art, conveniently located on the National Mall with free admission, should serve as the starting point of your D.C. art adventure.

The NGA boasts the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci permanently on display in the Western Hemisphere, roughly 10% of the world’s paintings by Johannes Vermeer, a collection of Paul Cezanne work to rival anyone’s, plus Van Gogh, Monet and Manets in numbers along with a deep stash of pieces from America’s greatest artists – John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Thomas Moran to name a few.

Cathedral at Rouen in National Gallery of Art
Side-by-side examples from Monet’s “Cathedral at Rouen” series at the National Gallery of Art. (Photo credit Traveling Without Kids.)

That’s just the West Wing of the museum. The East Wing quenches your thirst for modern art with noteworthy pieces from Picasso – “Family of Saltimbanqes” – Matisse, Vasily Kandisky, Jackson Pollock – “Lavender Mist” – Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko to name a few notables.

Henri Matisse, "Open Window, Colliure," National Gallery of Art.
Henri Matisse, “Open Window, Colliure,” National Gallery of Art.

The NGA is also on the circuit of elite institutions nationwide to receive the best traveling exhibits in the world. When we visited, Cezanne’s portrait exhibit was at the museum. It’s only other stops in the world were the National Gallery of Art in London and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

A further note about the NGA’s collection of Cezanne. Museum founder Andrew Mellon – the institution was his idea, his vision, began with his art collection, he gave the money to construct the building, picked the architect, endowed the Gallery, it’s no less than his house thanks to this extraordinary philanthropy. Anyhow, both Cezanne’s “Boy in a Red Waistcoat” ($616,000 in 1958) and “Houses in Provence” ($800,000 in 1965) were purchased at auction by Andrew Mellon’s son Paul Mellon. Both pieces and prices represented, at the time, the most money ever spent on the acquisition of a modern painting. Both works were subsequently given to the Gallery and are on display there.

The NGA comfortably resides among the 10 or 12 best art museums in the world and receives only a fraction of the buzz its American contemporaries – the Met and MoMA in NYC – do. That’s too bad. With its stunning, marble-columned rotunda, the NGA setting tops both New York museums.

If you’d like to venture deeper into the art world, check out the NGA’s podcast.

In front of Degas at the National Gallery of Art.
In front of Degas at the National Gallery of Art. (Photo credit Traveling Without Kids)

Looking for more modern art? Try the Phillips Collection.

The Phillips Collection is the art collection of Duncan Phillips, conveniently located inside his former D.C. residence about a mile from the National Mall.

Cezanne at Phillips Collection
Cezanne at Phillips Collection

A note about “modern” art. When you hear the word “modern,” resist the urge to think abstract, weird, unapproachable. “Modern” art is generally defined as anything since – and often including – the Impressionists. That includes, of course, Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, all of whom you’ll find inside the Phillips Collection, along with the uber-famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Renoir, the featured image for this blog (its yellows in the hats of various members of the party must be seen in person to appreciate). The Collection includes what must be the best group of paintings by post-Impressionist French artist Pierre Bonnard in the world and a few treats from old masters including El Greco, Goya and Delacroix.

A note about the Cezanne pictured here from the Phillips Collection. The upper picture is the full painting, the lower picture a detail of it.

Detail of Cezanne at Phillips Collection
Detail of Cezanne at Phillips Collection

This painting mesmerized me. The amount of empty canvas tells you how early in Cezanne’s process the picture is fixed. The picture has yet to come together. As you stare at it, you wonder what the artist was looking at while painting? You can so clearly see his “hand” in the brushstrokes, one laid on definitively after another – this one leading to that one, that one leading to the next.

The painting is a time capsule, or frozen time lapse frame, from Cezanne which provides stunning insight into how Cezanne painted. Looking at this picture, it feels almost as if you’ve interrupted “the hermit of Aix” – which, with his temperament, would likely not go over well. Looking at this picture is almost voyeuristic, as if you’ve snuck into his studio to cast your eyes on a masterpiece long from completion.

I’ve never seen a work so seemingly unfinished on display and the insight it provides into the artist is shocking. I often felt like looking away from the picture as I stared at it for minutes, feeling as though Cezanne would not have wanted anyone to see this picture so early in its creation.

American art is obviously the focus of the Smithsonian American Art Museum which is attached to the National Portrait Gallery back on the Mall. Admission here is also free.

Monumental Western landscape paintings from Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “Achelous and Hercules” – measuring five feet tall by 22 feet wide – and a gem of a picture, Ernest Lawson’s color explosion “Gold Mining, Cripple Creek,” are not to be missed.

The Renwick Gallery, The Corcoran Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens, the Hillwood Estate, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are other highly-thought-of art institutes in the D.C. area which we didn’t have enough time to visit.

Then there’s the sculpture! Whether on the National Mall or seemingly on every other street corner in D.C., public sculpture abounds. Our favorite remains the Korean War Memorial.

Korean War Memorial on the National Mall.
Korean War Memorial on the National Mall. (Photo credit Chadd Scott / Traveling Without Kids)

Don’t forget about the architecture, either. From the Capital Building to the White House, the Washington National Cathedral and dozens of other buildings in the District which are a feast for the eyes inside and out.

Yes, D.C. for monuments and museums, but D.C. for art too.

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