Along with "American Light," the National Gallery's critically acclaimed survey of the luminist movement in this country, two smaller museum exhibits also celebrate the creative spirit of America's artists and artisans.
"In Praise of America, 1650-1830" fills several rooms of the National Gallery's east building with 77 exceptional examples of furniture design and decorative artwork. Several blocks away and almost 50 years further along, the National Collection of Fine Arts scrutinizes the often grand, sometimes gaudy opulence of "The American Renaissance, 1876-1917."
"Praise" begins with a reconstruction of American design perspectives as revealed by a similar show held in 1929; that early exhibit served to inspire a generation of collectors and curators. The current show is largely devoted to the aesthetics of the individual objects: fine furniture, a variety of metalware and several clocks.
Paul Revere created a neoclassical tea service in 1792 for John and Mehitable Templeman; it still is ranked as one of the finest examples of a silversmith's work. An anonymous craftsman working in Boston around 1675 used oak, maple, walnut, chestnut, pine, cedar and an unspecified tropical wood to make his design statement: a hefty but stately chest of drawers.
Each item is handsomely displayed independent of the other pieces, rather than as a fragment in a period setting. The display areas are well-lit and open, a configuration that draws the viewer along while allowing ample space -- both physical and psychological -- for comparisons and contrasts. Credit for the installation's design goes to National Gallery staffers Gaillard F. Ravenel and Mark A. Leithauser. "Praise" continues through July 6. (While you're there, take the underground passageway over to the west building and see the "Light" show, through June 15.)
At the NCFA, "The American Renaisance, 1876-1917" is a complex exhibit of more than 300 items. The reinterpretation of "old world" roots encompassed many attitudes: painters and sculptors, architects and city planners, designers and artisans.
Among the remarkable items on display are a $20 "double eagle" gold piece designed by Saint-Gaudens in 1910, an ornate sterling trophy bowl made by Tiffany in 1889 and a plain but elegant brown-glass vase designed by John Liddell circa 1885.
Unfortunately, the NCFA has mounted the show in a maze of rooms that frustrates the visitor and diminishes the impact. Nevertheless, "Renaissance" is worth seeing. The exhibition runs through April 20.
Divisions of the Smithsonian Institution, the NCFA and both buildings of the National Gallery are open seven days a week. All three locations have pleasant dining facilities that make extended visits convenient. For more information, call 381-6264.