What’s New at the National Gallery

Contributing editor Jim Conaway is an admitted art buff, so he’s offered to begin reviewing the many exhibits in D.C.’s galleries. Today he discusses two new shows at the National Gallery of Art.

Pompeii.jpgThe National Gallery of Art is possibly the best deal for travelers in Washington, D.C.  It has one of the world’s great, most extensive collections, is convenient to the Capitol and Mall, housed in stunning architecture, and free. That alone makes it a stand-out when compared to the Metropolitan in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and other art museums in big cities. In addition, the National Gallery regularly puts together exhibitions from works of art from elsewhere that cast fresh light on enduring themes. Two shows have recently opened that illustrate this: Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples (through March 22, 2009); and Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered (through January 11, 2009).

I assumed I already had sufficient acquaintance with Pompeii, having visited it while living in Italy years ago.  In my mind, Rembrandt pretty much represented 17th-century Dutch masters, those magicians of the transposed human form draped in heavy robes (when it isn’t near-naked), and religious symbolism. I was wrong on both counts.

In the East Wing you can actually walk on mosaics authentically replicating an original floor in Pompeii before the catastrophic volcanic eruption of 79 AD, while on the walls hang portions of the real thing. There are also whole sections of frescoes, busts, and statues of ordinary citizens and famous Romans who used Pompeii as a kind of classical East Hampton, whose Mac-villas were filled with all the exquisite accoutrements of wealth. Overall, the exhibit creates a hauntingly realistic community of the doomed on the eve of their unanticipated end, forcefully bringing into the present the mysteries of that lost time and place whose beauty makes a solemn impact on the contemporary imagination.

As for Jan Lievens, I had never heard of him.

Lievens.jpgI found myself, in the adjacent West Wing, feeling empathy for a potential artistic star who found himself eclipsed in his time by his contemporaries, Rembrandt and Van Dyke, and was largely forgotten for three centuries. Don’t expect just sumptuous settings, lustrous jewelry, and sensual flesh tones, although there’s plenty of that.

Lievens was a bit of a rebel, as evidenced by a self-portrait in which his handsome face, unruly hair, and tragic gaze seem closer to 19th century romanticism than to the up-tight conventions of his time.

Eager for court approval, he was eclipsed in Holland by his friend, Rembrandt, whose portrait he painted. Rievens shows that artist as a young milksop, while Rembrandt never bothered to paint Rievens at all, possibly because he was jealous of his looks and self-confidence.

Rievens went to Britain to court royals there as subject for portraits, only to be passed over again in favor of Van Dyke. Rieven’s resurrected paintings bring fresh light to a subject and a period that can still surprise and delight.

Photos: Above, Stabiae, a harbor town, probably 1st century AD; fresco; Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Photography © Luciano Pedicini. Below, Jan Lievens, Dutch (1607 – 1674) The Cardplayers, c. 1623-1624, oil on canvas. Private collection.

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