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Unexpected Icebergs and Other Beautiful Distractions at the National Gallery of Art

July 6, 2022
Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820, Sir Edwin Landseer

I was on my way to the Lynda Benglis exhibit when I saw the painting above. It’s not that I’ve ever considered myself to be a person who could spot a new National Gallery of Art acquisition, but apparently I can if the curators make it obvious enough. I was entranced.

I decided to go ahead and dip into a few non-Benglis galleries. That’s how I found myself confronted by unexpected icebergs. They were very aggressive. The painting below makes me yearn for a transcript of the conversation in which someone described to John Ward of Hull what icebergs looked like.

The Northern Whale Fishery: The “Swan” and “Isabella”, 1840, John Ward of Hull

The exhibit “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” captured me shortly after that. Twenty-eight pieces were included in the collection of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings. This was my first experience of classic-era works featuring tiny insects and asparagus.

Dragonfly, Butterfly, and other Insects, with Auricula, Morning Glory, and Shells, 1655, Jan van Kessel The Elder
Still Life wth Asparagus and Red Currants, 1696, Adriaen Coorte
Still Life with Flowers Surrounded by Insects and a Snail, 1610, Clara Peeters

Because I arrived so early in the day and just when the National Gallery of Art was getting back to regular hours, I got the Vermeers to myself. I had seen both of these paintings before, usually in glimpses between the heads of other people. Nearly alone in the gallery for the first time, I realized that these were paintings of the same woman. Clearly, I continue to demonstrate my bona fides as the opposite of an art historian.

The Girl with the Red Hat, 1665, Johannes Vermeer
The Girl with a Flute, 1665 / 1675, attributed to Johannes Vermeer until October 2022 but actually the work of someone else

Highlights from the rest of my self-proclaimed “Beautiful Distractions Tour” are below. I call these pieces “Cow Shenanigans,” “I’m-not-sure-you’re-actually-a-lute player,” and “A Painting With More Reality In It Than Most.

River Landscape with Ferry, 1649, Salomon van Ruysdael
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1637 / 1638, Jan Miense Molenaer
Woman and Child in a Courtyard, 1660, Pieter de Hooch

Finally on the path away from distraction, I was accosted by one more painting of unexpected icebergs. Except they weren’t icebergs. They were the desert. National Gallery of Art has a wonderful overview of the painting below, which was innovative in many ways. In the digital archives, the painting has a companion that must not have been on display because I certainly would have noticed a flying red stigmata!

I have to wonder if John Ward of strange iceberg imaginings knew about the work below and decided that anything unknown had to be painted with spikes.

Saint John in the Desert, 1445 / 1450, Dominico Veneziano

All in all, it was a memorable series of distractions.

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