Art Works Blog

Lunching With the National Gallery of Art

Washington, DC

Text and photos by Rebecca Gross

One of the great things about working at the National Endowment for the Arts is that our offices are just a few blocks away from world-class museums like the National Portrait Gallery, Museum of American Art, and the Hirshhorn. I’ve found that art makes happy hours happier and lunch breaks tastier, which is why I popped by the National Gallery of Art earlier this week for a quick lunchtime visit with some of America’s finest.

I gravitate toward the gritty, so I started off with one of my favorite paintings in the NGA’s American collection, The City from Greenwich Village (1922) by John Sloan. Looking down at the dusky streets from a bird’s-eye view, Manhattan appears almost tranquil, silenced by the night. From a historical perspective, I love that this painting is a window into a time when the subway was still elevated, advertisements for moonshine still clung to walls, and the glittering lights of “downtown” could feel so far removed. This painting also always makes me think of how behind every apartment window is a different story. Story stacked on story---it’s my favorite thing about New York.

The City from Greenwich Village (1922) by John Sloan. Oil on canvas.

I stayed in the Big Apple to look at Snow in New York (1902) by Robert Henri, which again captures the city in one of its quieter moments. The indistinct brush strokes and shades of ochre perfectly convey the hazy light and slushy stillness of a snow day. Snow is currently on view as part of the Chester Dale Collection.

Snow in New York (1902) by Robert Henri. Oil on canvas.

Then I stopped by George Bellows’s Both Members of This Club (1909). I love all of Bellows’s work for its intensity, movement, and life, particularly in his boxing and urban scenes. In Both Members, the violence of the ring is transformed into an elegant pas de deux, where sinewy muscles and graceful limbs contrast sharply with the ghoulish, leering faces of the spectators. In this case, it’s not the blood that’s gory, but those who revel in it.

Both Members of This Club (1909) by George Bellows. Oil on canvas.

Next, I swung by Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening (1939). Hopper’s paintings always feel very airless and devoid of movement to me; they’re almost sculptural in how frozen they appear. This stillness is reflected in the painting’s figures, all of whom seem quietly transfixed within their own private mental islands. I love this sense of isolation in Hopper; it makes his work seem incredibly human.

Cape Cod Evening (1939) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas.

To lighten things up, I visited Winter Harmony (1890/1900) by John Henry Twachtman. After long months of cold and gray, everyone in Washington is ready for spring. But leave it to the famed landscape painter to remind us that there is beauty even in our bleakest season. The muted palette, thick texture, and soft forms of this painting echo the tranquility of a snowfall, and give nature a run for its money in terms of evocative power.

Winter Harmony (1890/1900) by John Henry Twachtman. Oil on canvas.

So that was my lunch break. How was yours?

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