Roberta Smith gets in the Inaugural swing with a paean to the National Gallery. Her New York Times column offers a tour of the nation’s art collection:
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.
And that’s just one side of the ground floor!
Amid Galleries, A Jewel of a Painting Collection (New York Times)