The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., provides a stunning home for 4,000 European and American paintings, 3,000 sculptures, 31,000 drawings, 70,000 prints, 12,000 photographs, and much more. It’s an awesome trove, to be sure, but approaching it requires planning.
Most of the art is not on display at any one time, of course, but some spectacular pieces always are, and they provide the best starting point.
Finding them can be exciting, and satisfying, a treasure hunt for the aesthetically minded traveler drawn to one of the U.S. capital’s prime attractions.
It helps—a lot—to have the guidance of a curator like Eric Denker, who shared his favorite masterworks in the museum’s permanent collection, all of them priceless.
1. “The Alba Madonna,” by Raphael (Gallery 20)
“Several of the [National Gallery's] paintings were acquired from the Hermitage [Russia’s premier art museum] back in the 1930s by Andrew Mellon,” Denker says, “including ‘The Alba Madonna,’ by Raphael, which belonged Czar Nicholas I.”
Originally painted around 1510 on a wood panel and later transferred to canvas, what Denker describes as “a dangerous procedure” where gauze is placed over the painting and covered with hot wax, which holds the work in place while the wood is removed. “The painting is then glued and ironed to the canvas,” he says. “You have to be careful.”
Quite an understatement. Gallery officials don’t discuss the worth of the works of art on display at the museum, but this painting is no doubt worth upward of $200 million.
2. “The Annunciation,” by Jan van Eyck (Gallery 39)
Another priceless Hermitage acquisition, “The Annunciation” was painted by the Dutch master van Eyck in the 15th century on panel and transferred to canvas while still in Russia. It depicts the annunciation of Jesus as described by St. Luke in the Bible and was probably once part of a religious triptych.
Critics point out that the artist managed to convincingly portray even the textures of materials ranging from polished stone to the soft petals of flowers. It belonged at one time to William II, King of the Netherlands, and also to Czar Nicholas. It was purchased by Mellon in 1930. Looking at it, you can convince yourself it was painted yesterday, the detail in the fabric and are stone so bright and realistic.
3. “Self-Portrait,” by Rembrandt van Rijn (Gallery 48)
Rembrandt produced this masterpiece in 1659 in Amsterdam, where he was the leading artist of his time. One of many self-portraits done throughout his life that provides a chronological pictorial record of the famous Dutch master, it was done following a period of financial difficulty for Rembrandt, and the burden is evident in his mien.
This painting is part of the museum’s extraordinary acquisition from the Hermitage collection. “It was exceptional to get that group of paintings,” Denker says, referring to the works that originated in St. Petersburg. “Anyone under Rembrandt’s deep, melancholy gaze feels the weight of responsibility inherent in owning them.”
4. “Ginevra de’ Benci,” by Leonardo da Vinci (Gallery 6)
The same feeling comes over anyone looking at another of Denker’s picks, “Ginevra de Benci,” painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1474 and 1478, yet another hot wax transfer from wood panel. “It’s the only [permanent] Leonardo in America,” he says of the portrait of a wealthy Florentine banker’s daughter.
The painting was misattributed in 1780 to a lesser painter and only discovered to be a Leonardo much later. After World War II it was acquired by Prince Franz Joseph II, and then by Andrew Mellon for the National Gallery.
5. “Venus With a Mirror,” by Titian (Gallery 23)
The last painting acquired from the Hermitage, this gorgeous canvas comes complete with adoring putti (angels). Rendered in Rome in 1555 during the Renaissance’s classic revival, this painting seems convincingly modern, with colors and attitudes strikingly sensual.
6. “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” by Peter Paul Rubens (Gallery 45)
Some paintings have unusual distinctions, Denker says. “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” by Peter Paul Rubens, happens to be the largest painting done by the artist’s own hand. In his time, popular painters often had understudies working under their direct supervision.
This work, undertaken between 1614 and 1616, illustrates the Old Testament story of the biblical hero condemned for worshipping God.
7. “Woman With a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son,” by Claude Monet (Gallery 85)
Another of Denker’s favorites, Monet’s “Woman With a Parasol” was painted in 1875 in the French countryside. “It was in the second exhibition in Paris in 1876,” Denker says, and represented a bold rejection of the rigidity of academic portraiture then in vogue.
It’s one of two paintings in the National Gallery’s collection that were part of the Parisian exhibition of work by so-called “intransigents,” visionaries in rebellion against the accepted artistic norms.
8. “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (Gallery 69)
“The White Girl,” completed in 1862, was also snubbed by the Paris tastemaker elite in the form of a rejection by the prestigious Royal Academy exhibition, Denker says. But sometimes being passed over has its rewards.
Whistler’s mysterious portrait went on to become part of an avant-garde protest in 1863 known as the “Salon des Refusés” (Exhibition of Rejects) that generated much controversy—as well as plenty of attention to the emerging artist’s work.
9. “The Shaw Memorial,” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Gallery 66)
While not an original, Denker has a particular fondness for “The Shaw Memorial.” The gilded plaster cast of an identical bronze high-relief sculpture in Boston dedicated in 1897, is on renewable loan to the National Gallery by the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire.
Considered by many to be the best American sculpture of the 19th century, Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece honors the service and sacrifice of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first official Civil War regiments of African Americans enlisted in the federal army.
10. “Family of Saltimbanques,” by Pablo Picasso (Gallery 80)
Painted in 1905 in Paris during the young artist’s struggle for recognition, Pablo Picasso’s “Family of Satimbanques” shows circus performers in repose that symbolize “the melancholy of the neglected underclass of artistes,” the most important painting of Picasso’s early career and an indication of the monumental success that would follow.
James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.