Just above the Seventh Street entrance to the National Gallery of Art’s West Building is one of the city’s greatest rooms. It’s a space that mixes beauty with power, history with the present.
Here are seven paintings by Titian, one of the foremost artists of the Italian Renaissance. A portrait of Vincenzo Cappello, a Venetian admiral, dominates the room. The painting exudes might: Cappello’s armor is shiny, his rich red cloak soaks up light, his baton declares authority. A warrior’s helmet is perched on a ledge behind him.
Cappello’s story has contemporary echoes: In the mid-16th century, Cappello led a victorious naval campaign against the Turks at Risano, thereby saving Christian Venice from the encroaching rush of Islam.
Behind Cappello and to the left is one of the greatest child portraits in all of art: Titian’s painting of 12-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III. Not long after the picture was finished, the pope made Ranuccio archbishop of Naples, a daring bit of nepotism that served to reinforce the pope’s power. Whereas Cappello challenges the viewer with a stare, Titian’s child looks shyly off to our left, revealing an endearing vulnerability.
But not so fast: On closer examination, we see that young Ranuccio is wearing a sword. Titian was telling an age-old story: that it’s not unusual for the children of great men to be elevated whether they’re ready or not—and that sometimes they reach for their swords too quickly.
This would be a very good gallery in Florence, Madrid, or Paris. Here in Washington it’s remarkable. It’s a room of the best of Italian art, situated in a 1941 neoclassical building meant to remind the world that the United States of America is the new empire. Titian’s paintings present Venice’s military might, its wealth, its power. The paintings are smartly hung, beautifully lit, and on view for free.
Across Fourth Street, in the National Gallery’s East Building, is a space as muddled as the Titian room is great. It should be one of the premier galleries in America, a room that reveals the richness of American painting in the 1950s the way the Titian gallery shows the apex of Venetian painting in the 1540s.
First, the art: There are five Mark Rothkos, a nice representation from the gallery’s collection of one of the greatest abstract painters. Three of the paintings feature Rothko’s moody color clouds, and two others are the black-on-gray paintings Rothko made just before committing suicide. One of the best Jackson Pollock drip paintings, “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)”; one of the best works by Clyfford Still; and excellent examples of Barnett Newman and Franz Kline round out the room. The art is not the problem.
The space—particularly the galleries on the lowest level, where the Rothkos are—is the problem. The walls, some permanent, some temporary, are broken up by distracting cut-out doors and panels. The artificial lighting is spotty and harsh, leaving the bottom two-thirds of the Rothkos lit while the tops are in the dark. The Stills and the Pollock suffer similar indignities. Despite the artistic riches it holds, the gallery is usually empty. The setting fights the art, and visitors can feel it.
Herein lies the dichotomy: The National Gallery has one building that features the best museum rooms in America and one that has some of the worst.
In the West Building, the NGA displays pre-1900 collections of painting, sculpture, and works on paper.
“It’s a great, great building,” says Arthur Wheelock, the NGA’s curator of Dutch art. Wheelock’s galleries are in the West Building, just off the main corridor that runs through the upper level. “When people want to go someplace, they go up and down that sculptural spine. If you want to look at Dutch, you peel off. Or to Italian. There is very little through-passage. People are in certain galleries because they want to be there, and that’s the great thing about that building. That adds to the sense of peacefulness of the experience.”
The East Building features a 20th-century collection that’s interesting but not consistent; a dozen American museums have stronger post-1970 holdings than the NGA’s. And the collection is installed in rooms that are oddly shaped, that seem to be more like nooks than galleries.
What to do about it? The NGA is filling in its gaps in the systematic way museums build collections. No doubt it will continue to improve its collection of 20th-century art.
But buildings are a different story. They change—or are built—only rarely. It’s been 30 years since the NGA last opened a new building. Too much great art is in storage; too much is strangely installed. The National