Masterpieces by the square yard
Very few museums in the world have as many masterpieces per square yard as the National Gallery of Art here. Other museums may have collections in greater depth and detail, may span more cultures and societies, and may be more specialized. But none can offer the visitor more artistic greatness in such relatively little space.Skip to next paragraph
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During an hour's leisurely stroll, he can encounter Botticelli's ''The Adoration of the Magi,'' Bellini's ''The Feast of the Gods,'' Leonardo's only accredited painting in the United States, ''Ginevra de' Benci,'' Giorgione's ''The Adoration of the Shepherds,'' Raphael's ''The Alba Madonna,'' Titian's ''Doge Andrea Gritti,'' and Veronese's ''The Finding of Moses'' - as well as dozens of only slightly less important works by these Italian Renaissance artists and their contemporaries.
The visitor can continue on to view some of the greatest works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, and Constable - as well as important examples by Holbein, Cranach, Durer, Van Dyck, Ruisdael, Rubens, Hals, and many others.
But that's not all. The National Gallery's collection of 18th- and 19 th-century Am-erican art is first-rate - as are its collections of Impressionist and Post-Impression
ist European painting and its holdings in sculpture, drawing, the graphic arts, and photography.
The National Gallery's East Building has received a great deal of attention since its 1978 opening, both for the building itself (designed by I.M. Pei) and for the contemporary art it houses. It is also the location of numerous exhibitions devoted to the art of earlier periods and cultures, as well as to the art of the very recent past. The John Hay Whitney collection
A good example of the latter is ''The John Hay Whitney Collection'' on view in the East Building. Its 73 paintings include French Pre-Impressionist, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Fauve, and Cubist works, a sprinkling of late 19th-century American paintings, and a few more recent pieces. All were assembled by the late John Hay Whitney and his wife. Some have been presented to the Yale University Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and to the National Gallery of Art, and are included in this exhibition as loans from those institutions.
It's an extremely handsome show that includes several paintings worth a trip to Washington all by themselves. Van Gogh's ''Olive Trees'' and ''Self-Portrait, '' Cezanne's ''Still Life With Apples, Pears, and a Gray Jug,'' Lautrec's ''Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero,'' Corot's ''Cottages and Mill by a Torrent ,'' and Seurat's ''Grandcamp, Evening'' are all superb. And other works by Gericault, Gauguin, Degas, Redon, Henri Rousseau, Vuillard, Matisse, and Picasso are of only marginally lower quality.
And yet, I must admit I found the collection somewhat disappointing. Its overall level of quality, considering the stature of the artists included, is surprisingly low. Almost everything on view is well, if not brilliantly, executed. And for sheer, exquisite painterliness, this show is a delight. But when it comes to the best of what the leading Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were capable, it falls somewhat short.
I spent the better part of two hours in the galleries trying to convince myself otherwise. But I could not, and left with the odd feeling that this show is almost ''stolen'' by the works of Eakins, Whistler, Sargent, and Balthus.
While I respect these four artists highly, I would not put them in the same class with Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, or most of the others represented in this exhibition. And yet, on the basis of quality rather than reputation, I'd rather own Eakins's ''The Oarsmen,'' Balthus's ''Le Salon,'' Whistler's ''Wapping on the Thames,'' and Sargent's ''Robert Louis Stevenson'' than many, if not most, of the other paintings. First-rate examples by artists of slightly lower rank are often superior to second- and third-level works by artists of great genius. Or so it would seem.