By Kari Lundgren - 10/06/05 12:00 AM EDT
e. All of the above.
If you visit the National Gallery of Art sometime this fall, chances are you will choose e.
From a healthy dose of lemons painted by Dutch master Peter Claesz to the sea breeze that virtually floats off the work of 19th-century printmaker Felix Buhot, the gallery’s latest exhibits are exquisite and worth an extended visit.
Of the four exhibits, the works of Claesz, a 17th-century painter from the epicenter of Dutch art, the city of Haarlem, is the most immediately gratifying. His oil-on-panel paintings, which overflow with red currants, game pies, lemons, nuts and enormous goblets of wine, provide the same warm glow that you might get by glancing through Gourmet magazine. The creamy, rich opulence of the simple scenes is overpowering and seductive; the paintings ooze luxury.
But far from only for the elite — though the pictures certainly were created for the best homes in Holland — Claesz’s work encourages the viewer to participate. His paintings are filled with details that suggest you just missed someone — there are breadcrumbs, a recently opened twist of pepper or a rumpled napkin. You aren’t just looking at a partially eaten mince pie; the spoon used to eat it is within reach, an open invitation to lean in and try some.
Beyond introducing naturalism to his work, Claesz was known for having painted his still-life pictures from a lower angle and for his skillful use of color and light. The effect is remarkable. The gilded cups and silver that adorn Claesz’s scenes sparkle and reflect. The works of his contemporaries, a few of which are on display throughout the gallery, seem flat and lifeless in comparison.
Leaving the gallery will be a bit like walking away from a sweet-smelling kitchen, but a trip down the Sculpture Hall, through the West Garden court, into Galleries 9, 10 and 11 will jerk you awake. The galleries house three intimidating statues that normally decorate the exterior of the onetime grain warehouse Orsanmichele, in the heart of Florence. Their visit to Washington marks the end of a 21-year restoration process and they will return to Florence when the exhibition is over.
Of the three, all paid for by 14th-century Florentine guilds, the 8-foot-10-inch colossal bronze St. Matthew commissioned by the bankers guild is the most impressive. The story goes that the sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, was directed to make a statue that was larger and more beautiful than a previous work he had completed for the dresser and dyers guild. The statue, its jade-green hue carefully restored to its original glory, is breathtaking and imposing. It is too big for the gallery, but it’s a good second best to seeing it in its niche in Florence.
In the back gallery stands another, less imposing bronze, “Christ and Doubting Thomas” by Andrea Verrocchio. The sculpture is different from its partners, as there is a definite narrative to the work, which is intended to capture all the drama and disbelief of the moment St. Thomas leans forward to touch the wounds of the risen Christ.
The exhibit begins with the white marble “Four Crowned Martyred Saints.” Relatively bland in comparison to the two bronzes, the martyrs’ most interesting feature is a sliver of blackened marble left behind to show the significant amount of the restoration work that had to be done.
The final two exhibits, both of prints, can be found downstairs. The first, a collection of early European works, is the first major international exhibit of images printed to paper. The majority are religious icons, and the artistry seems crude in comparison to the feast for the eyes one floor up. But there is an amazing tension here as well. These prints aren’t just art; they represent an enormous technological innovation — the first time that large groups of people could enjoy and own the exact same printed image. It was the beginning of a movement that eventually produced the likes of Andy Warhol and modern pop culture.
The work of Buhot, a 19th century French printmaker, comes as a relaxing end to a long afternoon, which will inevitably leave you footsore. Effervescent and active, Buhot’s prints depict his two favorite subjects: cities and the sea. The collection delves into his affinity for experimenting with various types of ink and paper by displaying several examples of the same print. It’s a Kir Royal for the eyes.
The Claesz and Florentine sculptures will be displayed through December, the Buhot through February and the early prints until March. Admission is free. See the National Gallery website, www.nga.gov, for additional details on each exhibit.