National Gallery of Art Reopens American Galleries After Two-Year Renovation

The National Gallery of Art's renovated and reopened American galleries exude a steadfast monumentalism.
The National Gallery of Art's renovated and reopened American galleries exude a steadfast monumentalism. (By Rob Shelley -- Copyright 2009, National Gallery Of Art)
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Revisiting the American galleries in the National Gallery of Art, which now are open again, is like seeing a neighborhood friend you've missed, a distinguished acquaintance. Very old people recall him as a baby, but now he's in his 60s, wears a suit of traditional cut, has been away for an operation though you wouldn't know it, and is seen where you expect him, looking much the same, familiar, official, strong.

The American galleries in the West Building are a particularly Washingtonian place. It belongs as much to the Mall and the monuments and their marble messages as it does to the art world.

That templelike suite of 14 rooms has long, lined-up views through Greco-Roman doorways, and pediments, and a fountain at the entrance. For two years it has been closed off behind plywood while plasterers and electricians and engineers of airflow worked in its walls. Its 150 pictures were wrapped and put in storage, or sent around on loan, or shown elsewhere in the museum. It's good to have them back.

Take "The Lackawanna Valley," which has been there since 1945 and appears in many textbooks as a prime example of the machine-in-the-garden notion that helps explain America just before the Civil War. The picture shows a train snaking through a landscape hitherto Arcadian (tended fertile fields, distant misty hills). It was painted on commission by George Inness outside Scranton, Pa., circa 1856. You can see that it was paid for by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad because the company's initials are on the wood car of the train, and you can also tell how much the company respected the nobility of art by remembering the fact that, 37 years after he'd painted it, Inness found his picture in Mexico City in a pawnshop.

The display begins with patriotic portraits of the bewigged founders of the nation and ends with a New York traffic jam (crowded sidewalks, horses, fashionistas, cops). The prevailing mood is stately, formal and canonical. This permanent collection is supposed to look, well, permanent, isn't it? The word, I know, is tricky, suggesting as it does both the perpetual and the dubious. Still, a sense of the agreed-on, the acknowledged, the established seems in keeping with the exercise, or so I would have thought. Not everyone agrees. A reviewer from the New York Times recently came, looked, and was displeased.

This "largely stultifying account of the Copley-Ashcan narrative," she wrote, feels like "the last stand of an outmoded position . . . so staid that the need for an alternative is unavoidable. . . . This dog won't hunt."

There are two problems with this critique. The first is that her proposed solution -- "livening things up" with a big injection of American naive pictures chosen from the 400 the gallery possesses (there's already a whole room of them) -- does not seem especially promising. If you really wanted this "outmoded" display of Gilbert Stuart's portraits, and Albert Bierstadt's landscapes, and Thomas Eakins's rowing scenes, and George Bellows's bloodied boxers to look in-moded instead, you'd have to do more than that.

A second problem is that the galleries' display is a lot less static than she supposes. In ways both big and small, it is not what it once was.

"Maybe," says curator Charles Brock, "that word 'permanent' is not the best way to think of it. Of course the permanent collection changes -- just at a different pace."

For starters, it's grown, and grown enormously. In 1941, when the West Building first opened and I was little, the gallery owned fewer than 20 American pictures, all portraits (one of John Randolph, one of Alexander Hamilton, two of George Washington). It now owns more than a thousand, and they're pictures of various kinds.

The types of art it tries to get keeps on changing, too.

I can remember a time, not so long ago, when the gallery possessed scarcely any American still lifes. What made this situation especially embarrassing was that William H. Gerdts, the country's greatest living scholar of the genre, was living a few blocks away and teaching at the University of Maryland, where he kept exhibiting the pictures that the gallery had ignored. This situation, too (with, says Brock, advice from Gerdts), has been gradually remedied. The new installation includes a whole room of still lifes, Gallery 69 A, which presents 18 of them, including Joseph Decker's wonderful "Ripening Pears" (circa 1884), which arrived in the museum in 2004, and Samuel Lewis's "A Deception" (circa 1780), which was acquired in 2008 and has not been shown before.

There are other new additions, too. Among the most American is Eastman Johnson's "On Their Way to Camp" (1873), a genre scene that shows hardworking boys gathering maple syrup in snowy winter woods. Before the Civil War, the country's vision of its past tended to be focused on Washington and Jefferson and Virginia's founding fathers. But once the war was won, and Virginia seen as stained by slavery, defeat, and Gen. Lee's treason, another history was needed, and New England's fit the bill. In addition to the Johnson, two other New England scenes displayed -- Alfred Thompson Bricher's "A Quiet Day Near Manchester" (1873; acquired in 2008) and Dennis Miller Bunker's "A Roadside Cottage" (1889; acquired in 2007) -- suggest the way the country was rethinking its usable past.

Every acquisition changes things a bit, and tweaks the whole collection. Sometimes more than merely tweaks.

What may have been the biggest change of all came in 1997 when the plaster version (gold-painted, enormous) of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment was brought into the building and built into the wall. And it wasn't just that sculpture now had pride of place where only oil paintings had been shown before. The "Shaw Memorial" (1897) isn't merely a great sculpture celebrated by a great poem (Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead"), it's a monument to the patriotism of African Americans. Col. Shaw's infantry was black.

Now, when you step into the American galleries, what you see on axis before you is the black sailor at the apex looking down with horror at the "Jaws"-like drama of John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark," and, as you proceed, what you see as powerfully on axis to your left is the colonel's marching infantry. Somehow that black presence, which was not sensed before, shifts one's whole experience. It is as if those objects were reaching through the walls of John Russell Pope's great building, acknowledging their bonds to the Seated Lincoln and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial outside on the Mall.

While the galleries were closed, the old steam-radiator heating system was replaced, as were some 100 miles of wiring. The air-conditioning system was overhauled. The fire-suppression systems were improved. This work is part of a complex $22.8 million renovation of the building.

You're not supposed to notice. What you are supposed to notice is that you're on the Mall, in the presence of national monuments. Here liveliness and modishness have been, it's true, suppressed. This isn't accidental. In such a situation staidness has its place.

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