August 8, 2011 Washington, D.C.

John: After breakfast, Clark and Lewis remind us that we have promised them an amazing Beeba-led tour of the National Gallery. We tell them not to expect much in the way of frog or duck pictures; they seem to realize that there are not too many frog and duck genre painters. Back on the Metro we travel.

"She looks a little froggy to me, Lewis."

John: We intend to be selective and focus only on 13th-16th century Italian and 16th and 17th century Flemish and Dutch. Almost immediately, we fail miserably in that objective. We notice a special exhibition: “Impressionism to Modernism: the Chester Dale collection”, and head right in with our audio guides in hand.

Mary: I’m “okay, it’s a special exhibition. I’ll look at it.” I have to give John a crumb occasionally.

John: Loyal followers will know that Impressionism isn’t our first love. I think it’s Renoir that leaves us a bit flat. But wait! We’re liking some of these a lot. There’s even one with a bit of an edge! (What, Renoir edgy?). Encouraged, we proceed. The usual Impressionist suspects are well-represented: Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Pissaro, Manet and of course Monet. But also some works by Mary Cassatt and one by Nebraskan Robert Henri (we learn it’s pronounced HEN-rye, having driven all across Nebraska saying it wrong– there’s a museum devoted to him outside Kearney. For some reason, he painted a lot of New York City snow scenes.)

Mary: Interestingly the first photo I take is of a Renoir, “Girl With a Watering Can.” What? I am being seduced by soft colors and pretty children. Get a grip, Mary. And then a Degas of four dancers. I’ve always thought of Degas as a little bent what with his creeping around backstage painting girls dancing. But I like the analysis of the painting that perhaps it’s not four dancers but one dancer in four positions. It reminds me of early Renaissance paintings where different scenes of the same story are on one canvas.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - "Girl With a Watering Can"
Edgar Degas - "Four Dancers"

John: We stop and see a short film about Chester Dale and his collection. This guy Dale and his wife really knew how to collect. Without his collection the National Gallery would be much less than it is. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Dale.

The exhibition segues into Modernism. The Dales were early collectors of Picasso, Braque, Dali and Matisse. They also acquired a very large number of Modigliani paintings, which we find we really like.

Pablo Picasso - "The Lovers"

John: This exhibition is just the right size. We enjoy it greatly. But wait! We have not made even a slight dent on our objectives for the day. We must refuel. We have lunch at the museum cafe and plan our next campaign.

After lunch, we attack the early Italian rooms. Mary loves decoding the iconography (our favorite is St. Anthony the Abbot identified by the devilish little pig at his feet.) I get photographed standing between two saints (one is St. John, no relation) and I take Mary’s picture with an early Mary (also, no relation). We polish off the Italian Gothic and Renaissance and then go Dutch.

Mary: Much as I love early Renaissance painting, I think I love it because it shows how painting developed from static to plastic. I think maybe today I am liking the Impressionist stuff because I can see the change as it develops into post-Impressionism and then into Expressionism etc. I have to think about this more.

John and the saints
Mary, Mary

John: We are running out of steam. So are Clark and Lewis. Much as we love the details of Dutch genre painting, we must go for the gusto. We contemplate the Rembrandts (especially the self-portrait), and then zero in on the Vermeers. In the 90s, Mary and Sarah were able to see a special exhibition of Vermeers in the Hague. (I was working, I am still jealous). They were hooked and they got me hooked later. We try and view Vermeer paintings wherever they are appearing, such as in Bilbao this past December.

The Woman with a Balance and the Girl with the Red Hat are extraordinary. Period.

Mary: Vermeer paints with such precision. It all looks so photographic. Up close, though, you see the liberties he takes with the paint. Certainly not like Rembrandt but he does let the paint speak.

Vermeer - "Woman Holding a Balance"

John: We have had another great day here in DC, despite the heat and humidity. Tomorrow we hope to play some tennis early and then head to Peg and Ted’s on the Eastern Shore.

Mary: I am very excited to see my sister. We are having a big party this week for her birthday!

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