A significant change in how the paintings are displayed, however, is obvious. Morton, who came to the National Gallery from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in part to oversee the rehang of these rooms, has taken an eclectic approach. It is not strictly chronological or biographical (only two rooms are devoted to the work of single artists) or thematic, but a mix of the three. Some rooms, especially one devoted to some of the “greatest hits” of the collection (Renoir’s 1885 “Girl With a Hoop” and Monet’s 1880 “Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil”), seem designed purely for sybaritic delight.
The National Gallery originally was not strong in French work. At its 1941 opening, there was not a single 19th-century French work to be seen. That reflected the tastes of the principal donor, Andrew Mellon, who wasn’t much interested in the period, and his conviction that other donors would come forward to fill the gap. They did, notably Chester Dale in 1962; Mellon’s children Paul and Aisla; Joseph Widener; and Agnes and Eugene Meyer (who owned The Washington Post and whose descendants still run it). The collection is now very strong, but also (in terms of competing U.S. museums) rather new.
Morton says the new galleries have “some things from storage, but not a lot, because it is still such a young collection.” Major holes include academic art and the more conservative or establishment painters, against whom the renegades of 19th-century art supposedly struggled but from whom they learned everything that made that struggle meaningful. There are images by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres across the hallway, filling out a neo-classical, 18th-19th century gallery. But a wish list would include Ary Scheffer, Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, often given to insipidity but rarely dull. Even so, the galleries look and feel splendid, with dynamic tension built into many of the rooms and a sense of thoroughness, without the monotony of a more orthodox, rigorously chronological approach.
Paris, as Walter Benjamin said in the title of one of his most famous essays, was “the capital of the 19th century.” And never more so than in 1905, when Picasso painted his large-scale vision of poor circus performers, “Family of Saltimbanques,” or in 1910 when the fabricated Russian exoticism of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” premiered at the Ballets Russes.
Although Paris dominates the new galleries, the idea of “French” art has been interpreted liberally, as have the boundaries of the “19th century.” The Picasso “Saltimbanques” is the climax of the new space, bridging the 19th-century inheritance and the new modernist impulse that would lead to cubism and beyond. Paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, which Morton says straddle awkwardly the 19th and 20th century divide, have been brought out of storage and included in the last room, with the Picasso.