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National Gallery of Art

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The visually stunning National Gallery of Art is one of the most important museums in the USA, though not part of the Smithsonian per se. The original Neoclassical gallery, opened in 1941, is now called the West Building and holds the bulk of the permanent collection. Galleries to the west on the main floor display major works by early- and high-Renaissance and Baroque masters, arranged by nationality: half a dozen Rembrandts fill the Dutch gallery, including a glowing, mad portrait of Lucretia; Van Eyck and Rubens dominate the Flemish; and El Greco, Goya and Velázquez face off in the Spanish. In the voluminous Italian galleries, there’s the only da Vinci in the Americas, the 1474 Ginevra de’ Benci, painted in oil on wood; Titian’s vivid image of Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos and Venus with a Mirror; and Raphael’s renowned Alba Madonna (1510). The other half of the West Building holds an exceptional collection of nineteenth-century paintings – a couple of Van Goghs, some Monet studies of Rouen Cathedral and water lilies, Cézanne still lifes and the like. For British art, you can find genteel portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and even more evocative hazy land- and waterscapes by J.M.W. Turner. Augustus St Gaudens’ magisterial battle sculpture Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment takes up a whole room to itself.

The East Building

The National Gallery’s East Building (same hours and admission) was opened in 1978 with an audaciously modern I.M. Pei design, dominated by a huge atrium. European highlights of the permanent collection include Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period pieces The Tragedy and Family of Saltimbanques, along with his Cubist Nude Woman, and Henri Matisse’s exuberant Pianist and Checker Players. Andy Warhol’s works are as familiar as they come, with classic serial pieces 32 Soup Cans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Green Marilyn. Notable Abstract Expressionist works include large, hovering slabs of blurry colour by Mark Rothko, The Stations of the Cross by Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). There’s also Robert Rauschenberg’s splattered, stuffed-bird sculpture known as Canyon, and Jasper Johns’s Targets, which is among his most influential works.

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