The next several days promise to be unusually euphoric for the nation’s capital, even by the standards of past presidential inaugurations. If you’re in town for this historic event and have some extra time, you can always duck into the National Gallery of Art without clouding your elation. Thanks to the museum’s magnificent painting collection, the euphoria possible inside its walls can easily match the mood outside. It may also strike you as similarly alive with a sense of human possibility.
The National Gallery, founded in 1937 as a gift to the nation from the financier Andrew W. Mellon, opened its doors in 1941. It is the jewel in the crown of Washington’s many great museums. It is open, with free admission, 363 days a year, although this year that number will drop to 362. Like many institutions along the Mall, it will be closed on Inauguration Day.
Although the gallery has impressive holdings in prints, drawings, photography, the decorative arts and especially sculpture, it is not an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others across the nation. Its art is almost entirely European and American, and its long suit by far is painting.
The bulk of the National Gallery’s paintings are arrayed on its vast main floor, where warrens of wonderfully intimate galleries feed into two long halls that meet at a domed rotunda. It is as if the arcades of the Palais Royale in Paris were attached to either side of the Pantheon in Rome.
The galleries are numbered, and the first 25 or so offer an amazing review of the font of Western painting in 13th- to 16th-century Italy, especially if you attend primarily to the abundant renderings of the Madonna and Child. The starting point is “Madonna and Child Enthroned” by Margaritone d’Arezzo in Gallery 1. Dated around 1270, it encapsulates the gold ground, frozen poses and flattened space of Byzantine art.
One possible end point is “The Alba Madonna,” Raphael’s glorious tondo from around 1510 in Gallery 20. Here the Madonna leans toward the Christ Child like a mother (albeit a very dignified mother) on a picnic; the graceful, fully rounded figures occupy an immense dome of crystalline, blue-skied space that stretches out behind them.
In between these two paintings virtually every Italian painter of the time seems to weigh in on the subject, as well as on how to render the figure expressively in space. The progression of works gives unusual force to both the idealism and realism of the High Renaissance. Of course the Renaissance portraits in these rooms are not small change, starting with Leonardo’s ineffable “Ginevra de’ Benci” (Gallery 6).
Across the hall the Northern Renaissance and its repercussions unfold almost as compellingly, with scores of must-see galleries, including two (48 and 51) devoted to Rembrandt and his school. One of the choicest places to pause is Gallery 39, where you’ll find three pinnacles of the astounding realism favored in Germany and the Netherlands.
First is Jan van Eyck’s meticulous “Annunciation,” from around 1434-6, in which the Angel Gabriel finds Mary in a Gothic church standing on a carpet whose delicate lines depict scenes from the Old Testament. Second is Petrus Christus’s grand “Nativity,” from around 1450. The elaborate manger includes an arch decorated with statues of Adam and Eve and a peaked roof with green leaves sprouting from a horizontal beam directly above the Christ Child. Yet this sign of growth and hope is framed by a triangle of spindly wood that subtly evokes torturously stretched arms, as on the Cross. Third is Rogier van der Weyden’s luxuriously austere “Portrait of a Lady” of around 1460, her delicate face framed by white veils in a shape reminiscent of a sphinx.
A quick stop in Gallery 50C, not much bigger than a large closet, will bring you face to face with Vermeer’s dewy “Girl With the Red Hat” (1665-66), turning around to peer out of the picture so quickly that you can almost hear the rustling of her blue silk garment. The space behind her is muffled by a yellow and green tapestry in soft focus.
On the other side of the rotunda, French Impressionism and a few galleries of American art await. (More are in the process of being reinstalled after a temporary exhibition, along with galleries of British art.) Among the Impressionists, keep an eye out for Cézanne’s rough-surfaced, all-thumbs portrait of his domineering father in Gallery 83. He is clothed like a laborer, despite being a banker (as he thought Cézanne should have been) and is shown seated beneath one of his son’s still lifes, reading a newspaper that favorably reviewed his son’s work.
Another standout in this section is Gauguin’s “Still Life With Peonies” (Gallery 84), a relatively unfamiliar work painted in a quasi-Impressionistic manner but with the deep reds, greens and yellows typical of Gauguin’s mature style. An early work, it shows Gauguin’s bowing to his elders, probably by depicting art that he owned: part of a drawing by Degas is visible, tacked to the wall, along with a village scene that might be by Pissarro.More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2009, on page C32 of the New York edition.