A Must-See Cast of Characters at the National Gallery of Art: Richard Serra, Edgar Degas, Titian, and More

Madeleine Boucher
Jul 2, 2014 5:36PM

The National Gallery of Art’s encyclopedic collection is as free and open as a museum can be. Located just blocks from the U.S. Capitol building and next door to the famous rotunda of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, anyone can walk straight in. The openness of the space gives visitors the freedom to drop by for a quick visit to see a work that has become an old friend, or to spend the whole day. The idea that the museum belongs to the people was key to its inception. A gift to the nation from financier and art collector Andrew Mellon, the National Gallery of Art’s classicizing West Building was built in 1937. The West Building’s collection (the core of which is Mellon’s own, grown exponentially with gifts over the years) is arranged by national origin and time period in rooms evocative of the artworks’ original settings. Anticipating that the collection would one day outpace the capacity of the West Building, an adjacent plot of land was set aside for future development. Mellon’s descendants later carried on his legacy by commissioning Chinese architect I.M. Pei (famous for his glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre) to design the angular, natural light-flooded East Building, which was completed in 1978. Henry Moore and Alexander Calder created sculpture commissions to fill the new building’s atrium, where Calder’s massive kinetic mobile still revolves gently three stories above. In addition to these indoor spaces dedicated to sculpture, an outdoor gallery for monumental works, the Sculpture Garden, opened in the late 1990s. There, in the winter visitors ice skate past an original Hector Guimard Art Nouveau entrance to the Paris Metro, and in the summer visitors lounge in the grass in the shadow of Louise BourgeoisSpider, while listening to free jazz concerts. 

Whether you decide to spend the day or just drop by, here’s an introduction to the cast of characters you can get to know in the National Gallery collections.

1. Edgar Degas, Woman Viewed from Behind (Visit to a Museum), c. 1879-85

In a room of Degas dancers, bathers, and sculpted bronze horses, you’ll find yourself unconsciously imitating this elegant museum-goer lost in thought, gazing at paintings.

2. Titian, Venus with a Mirror, 1555

Titian’s interpretation of a popular Renaissance poetic metaphor for love (the mirror standing in for a lover by capturing the goddess’ beauty) celebrates a wealth of texture from Venus’ supple skin to the velvet cloth she clutches.

3. Jan Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640

Portrayed as the standard bearer of a Haarlem militia company at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, this gentleman proudly showcases his fashion-forward tastes with his lacy pink satin suit, colorful plumed hat, and dapper white gloves. Nearby, see if you can also spot two of the most authoritative noses in art history.

4. Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalen, c. 1635-40

La Tour’s masterful handling of candlelight in this composition, piercing the edges of the skull and illuminating Mary Magdalen’s profile, draws viewers in like moths to a flame. 

5. John Singer Sargent, Street in Venice, 1882

Bucking the tradition of portraying Italy through a series of grand piazzas and elegant buildings, Sargent captured the romance of this dingy back alley in Venice, down to the hint of red peeking through the shawl of the mysterious woman walking through the street.

6. Richard Serra, Five Plates, Two Poles,  1971

While not a “character” per se, you can get up close and personal with Serra’s enormous rusted sculpture better than with any portrait painting as you weave around the seemingly precarious steel plates and pipes on your way into the East Building.

Explore highlights from the National Gallery of Art.

Madeleine Boucher