So Much Art, So Little Time | Our Recent Travels to Washington D.C. and Virginia

What do gallery owners do on vacation?

Like every other holiday traveler, my wife, Carrie, and I travel to escape from the demands of daily life. With a busy gallery and four children, sometimes we just need to take a break from our routines and recharge. We’ve been married since 1998, and, over the years, have had the opportunity to visit some amazing places and see some incredible sites. We love traveling together!

on our way – 6:00 am flight!

This year it turned out that our children all had fall break at the same time, something that doesn’t always happen with the four of them attending three different schools.  When we realized this would occur, Carrie and I immediately began planning a getaway. We did some extensive traveling with our kids over the summer, so we decided to leave them at home under the care of their grandparents, while we would sneak away to Washington D.C. and Virginia.

Carrie and I have both been reading a lot of American history recently, so we thought it would be fun to visit sites we had read about – especially the homes of great figures in American history and Colonial Williamsburg. We made a careful plan, booked a rental car, and reserved rooms. We were excited for our adventure as the vacation arrived and we set off on our journey.

Now, I want to be clear, as we set of on this trip, we were planning to enjoy a trip filled with history. Somehow, however, the trip, as so many of our outings do, turned out to have a main course of art, with a side of American History!

Day1

It all began on our first full day in Washington D.C. We had decided that we were going to visit Smithsonian museums during our two days in the Capitol, but that we would wait to decide which ones until we were on the Mall. We visited a number of the monuments, and then gravity pulled us inexorably toward the National Gallery of Art. We thought we would just poke our heads in and scout out the gallery to see if we ought to come back with more time. Instead we ended up spending the entire afternoon, not leaving until the Gallery, and all the other museums were closed.

We loved the museum’s collection. Carrie and I each have a long list of favorite artists. Our lists overlap quite a bit, but not entirely, and so it was fun dragging each other to see favorites. We try to stay close enough together that we can discuss interesting pieces.

We saw works by Caravaggio, Dürer, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Carrie pointed across a gallery and exclaimed “Bierstadt!”; the National Gallery has a number of great examples of his epic landscapes. I got to see several Turners (I’m a bigger fan of his work than Carrie). Renoir. Monet. Cassatt. John Singer Sargent. Church. And many, many more.

The hours in the museum flew by and we felt no regrets at having spent the afternoon with our friends, the Masters!

Day 2

Most of our second day in the Capital was spent at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum was a profound experience. Even though the Holocaust Memorial Museum is not an art museum, art plays an important role in conveying the story of the Holocaust. The museum itself and its design were carefully crafted to magnify the impact of the displays. We saw works of art from concentration camps, and artwork made to help convey the scale of the tragedy of the Holocaust.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the museum, I highly recommend it.

We spent so much time there, that by the time we were finished, it was late afternoon and we had once again run down the clock. We walked up to the Capitol building. We were too late for a tour, but we got to poke around a bit, and once again, realize how important art is in memorializing history.

We then strolled to the White House and on to the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a sunset trip to the Jefferson Memorial. Art, art and more art!

 

Day 3 & 4

On our third day we headed west from DC across the wooded Virginia countryside to Charlottesville, a three hour drive. We arrived just in time for our scheduled tour of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. We were interested to learn about Jefferson’s life, about the gardens, and about the lives of the enslaved workers on the plantation, but once again, I couldn’t keep my attention away from the art we saw on the tour.

Jefferson was clearly fascinated with classical and French architecture, and it was interesting to see how his vision was incorporated into the home (a project that ultimately took 40 years!). Additionally, Jefferson collected paintings and sculptures throughout his lifetime, along with engravings and native American artistry and craft.

What I loved about seeing his art collection was that there weren’t necessarily any “significant” works. Rather, we were seeing artwork by a variety of artists and artisans that would have been active during Jefferson’s lifetime. While it’s possible that some of these artists may have gone on to become famous in their lifetime, most likely remained obscure. After having spent the day in the National Gallery, and having spent a lot of time in other museums, I found it fascinating to glimpse a real-world collection.

It also became clear that most of the art was illustrative or narrative in purpose. Jefferson collected portraits and busts of famous figure he admired – enlightenment thinkers, historical political figures, generals and others. He had engravings of important battles and historical moments. Very little of the art we saw was likely to have been purchased for decorative purposes. There were also painted portraits of family members.

One gets the sense that in an age before television and computers, art was a much more important part of the daily visual experience people were having.

It was also interesting to see how contemporary monumental sculptures have been used by the foundations who run these homes and provide tours to help bring historical figures to life. You can’t escape the art!

The following day we visited Jame’s Madison’s home, Montpelier. Once again – the history was rich, and the artwork critical to the story. Both James and Dolly used artwork to engage visitors in conversation.

It was clear that for both Thomas Jefferson and for the Madisons, art was an important part of their daily experiences and routines.

Day 5

Our fifth day was spent in Colonial Williamsburg, a reproduction/restoration of the colonial period capital of Virginia. Touring the governor’s palace, our first stop of the day, showed once again how relevant art was during the pre-revolutionary period. The art in the palace was clearly designed to instill a sense of awe toward the crown and the British colonial government. We were fortunate to get a great tour guide who shared stories about individual works of art in the building and the effect they had on visitors.

After visiting a number of different restored homes and businesses throughout the day, we made our way to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum & Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum on the outer edge of the colonial section of town.

The museum is built on the grounds of the old public hospital. As they are building a new entry plaza for the museum, you currently enter through the mental ward of the hospital – a bit of an odd introduction to the art.

As the name of the museum indicates, the collection is made up of decorative and folk art. Unlike other museums where the focus is on well-known artists and their work, this museum houses an extensive collection of antique furniture and folk art by a wide range of artists and artisans.

As we were entering the collection we noticed a docent-led tour making its way through the furniture. We decided to tag a long for a few minutes, but the docents comments on the furniture were so interesting and his knowledge so deep that we ended up completing the entire tour. I have to admit that I am a complete neophyte when it comes to furniture, and it was fascinating to realize that a chest of drawers truly can be a work of art.

 

The folk art section of the museum was likewise focused on lesser-known artists, or at least lesser-known to me. Even though we hadn’t spent a lot of time with folk art, Carrie and I like the simplicity and naivete of folk art. We’ve admired artists like Philip Curtis (the Phoenix Museum of Art has a great collection) and Grant Wood, along with other folk-art inspired artists.

Day 6

On our last day of the trip we made our way back to the D.C. area and visited one last historic site, George and Martha Washington’s Mt. Vernon. To avoid redundancy, I won’t spend a lot of time describing this visit. Like Monticello and Montpelier, Mt. Vernon had many fine examples of period art – including some especially fine landscapes.

If you are interested in colonial and revolutionary history and want to see some great art, I can highly recommend DC, Charlottesville, Montpelier, Colonial Williamsburg and Mt. Vernon. Carrie and I returned from our trip a bit exhausted (we saw a lot in a week!) but thoroughly enriched by the experience.

Do you seek or avoid art on your vacations?

Does art wend its way into your vacations, or do you try to get away from art when you travel? Have you had experiences like ours where art became an important aspect of a trip that was intended to focus on art? Share travel experiences in the comments below.

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