Taking in the capital's artistic side

American, portrait museums are only a short drive away

field trip

December 29, 2006|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

Holiday vacation week might be an ideal time to explore the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

As longtime participants in the art appreciation classes sponsored by Anne Arundel Community College and taught by Betty Knupp, my husband, Bud, and I have studied a variety of European and American art.

We usually see them in slides during classes, but at least once each term we view art exhibited in several galleries and museums in Washington.

We have visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum twice since it reopened in July after a six-year renovation, most recently this month.

Both of our tours began on the first-floor West Wing with a stop at a visionary work called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, created from 1950 to 1964 by untrained artist James Hampton, who worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration in Washington.

Soon after Hampton's death in 1964, his creation was discovered by Meyer Wertlieb, the owner of the 7th Street garage in Northwest Washington.

Inside, Hampton created his monumental, glittering work out of old light bulbs, cardboard cylinders, coffee cans, mirror fragments and discarded furniture that he wrapped in silver and gold foil collected from cigarette packs and wine bottles.

Two people bought Hampton's Throne and anonymously donated it in 1970 to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it occupies 380 square feet of floor space and stands 10 feet tall.

We also enjoyed a fascinating stop at the third-floor Lunder Conservation Center, where we viewed paper conservators at work in two of the five different laboratories and studios.

We spent our remaining time admiring works by John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam, barely scratching the surface of this magnificent collection of more than 7,000 artists' works.

The museum is an architectural treasure, with its porticoes modeled on the Parthenon, vaulted galleries and city-block-long skylights above the restored tile floor.

After the American Art Museum, we visited the National Gallery, where we were given a guided tour of representative American painting from Colonial times to the early 20th century.

We were most excited to view 19th-century Hudson River school artist Asher B. Durand's painting Kindred Spirits, which portrayed landscape painter Thomas Cole standing on a ledge in the Catskill Mountains with his friend, poet William Cullen Bryant. Kindred Spirits is on loan to the National Gallery courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation.

We also had time to visit an exhibition running through the end of this month in the East Wing of some magnificent landscapes of 19th-century English artist John Constable.

This fascinating exhibit displays large oil sketches that reveal a freedom reminiscent of Impressionism when viewed next to Constable's finished work beautifully capturing the serenity and wonder of nature.

This display lends fascinating insight into the painstaking effort the artist invested in capturing the tranquil English countryside.

Admission is free to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is also free to the National Gallery of Art, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. For Smithsonian information, call 202-633-1000, and for National Gallery information, call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

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