Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
For our first full day in D.C., we made sure we bundled up before we braved the chilly weather. After a typical quick breakfast, we laid out a plan of action for the day and set off on foot. Our first location was within a reasonable walking distance inside the National Mall, and we could see our destination from a distance. As we neared, we could see the details of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which was adorned with Corinthian columns and several reliefs.
We were grateful that there was no great line to enter the museum but we were shocked at the number of people also exploring their way through history. A grand foyer and a posed elephant welcomed us as we entered the building. As a group, we gathered and quickly discussed the best use of our time and the order in which we should meander through the exhibits. We soon were enthralled by specimens, fossils, and skeletons that left no room for downtime. The exhibits were displayed by date, species type, and even dramatic scenes.
Yvette and I split off from the rest of the group and started our journey through time. We were also blown away at the sizes of some of the displays.
A few towered over us…
… while others were the size of a hummingbird’s femur. Yvette and I especially enjoyed the lab on the first floor of the museum which had cameras and screens set up to allow visitors to watch scientists work on the fossils. We were mesmerized by the work the scientists were conducting on the specimens.
Interestingly, we also saw a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds in America,” which was beautiful, and bigger than any book we’ve ever seen!
The crown jewel of the museum was, naturally, the Hope Diamond. It was mined in India in the 17th century and changed hands several times over the last few centuries. It was eventually purchased by famed jeweler Harry Winston who donated it in 1958. It is one of the most famous parts of the museum. It gets its blue hue from trace amounts of the element boron in the stone. We learned that a diamond’s size and clarity are good indicators of its worth. The Hope Diamond is a prime example of the size factor, weighing in at 45.52 carats and costing upwards of $350 million. We could have easily spent the entire day inside the Museum of Natural History alone, but we pulled ourselves away from the many fascinating and—in the case of the Hope Diamond, dazzling displays and headed toward the exit.
Smithsonian National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
As we left the museum we spied portions of sculptures peeping over the tops of shrubbery across the street and decided to investigate further. Imagine our delight when we realized that they were works by artists we know and love! We had recently seen one of Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” while we were in Oklahoma, and this time we found ourselves looking at his sculpture, “AMOR.” A true pop artist, Indiana uses modern materials such as aluminum and bright, contrasting colors in his works.
As we roamed the rest of this sculpture garden, some among us were introduced to other pop artists like Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein…
…for the first time. We paused briefly at a striking work by Roxy Paine, whom Professor Yawn acknowledged as being one of his favorite artists. Paine is recognized for his giant metallic tree installations that combine the natural world and man-made elements.
Personally, Joel Shapiro’s sculpture Untitled, 1989 was my favorite. Shapiro is well-known for his minimalist sculptures consisting of fixed rectangular elements that evoke a sense of movement.
And, of course, we also got to see a couple of Calders…
…with so much to see here, it’s no wonder that we fell in love with D.C. as we rambled across the city.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
After whetting our artistic appetites in the Sculpture Garden, we next visited The Smithsonian American Art Museum, walking across the mall to get there.
But it was the Smithsonian that we witnessed the largest collection of American Artists, some we had previously seen and others we had not. We were exposed to such varied styles of works from artists that we were familiar with, that we found ourselves eagerly moving from painting to painting in the hopes of seeing something new from artists that we had become used to.
Unlike other museums we had previously been to, we were able to see more of Thomas Moran’s and Albert Bierstadt’s works. Their breathtaking landscapes scenes consist of the country’s natural beauty, with luminosity provided by the artists.
Morgan, who typically prefers a Moran or Bierstadt painting over other artworks, today favored a piece by Sargent; the “Corner of a Church on San Stae.” We all noted that this work was much different than anything we had seen by him up until this point. We had only seen his portraits!
Interestingly, we saw an early Jackson Pollock, and the influence his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, had on him was obvious.
And this became more clear when we saw an entire wall dedicated to Benton!
Up on the second floor, we were able to see the Presidential Portrait Gallery. In this wing was included at least one portrait of every U.S. president, starting with President Washington, proceeding all the way up to President Trump.
Upon entering we were immediately confronted with the famed George Washington Portrait done by Gilbert Stuart.
This portrait is deeply symbolic. It depicts our first president, but it also includes several other details regarding the birth of our nation. In the background of the painting through a window, there can be seen a rainbow emerging from dark storm clouds, suggesting that America was emerging bright and new from a dark and stormy era. Washington’s right arm gestures toward a quill pen and parchment on his desk while his left arm rests on the hilt of his sword, suggesting that our newly-formed democracy was ready to assume its governance role but that it would still defend itself if the need arose. The law and philosophy books under his desk portray Washington as an enlightened leader in addition to his being a man of action. This is the famous portrait that we see on our dollar bill.
Prior to this museum, we’d stopped briefly at Ford’s Theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Seeing his presidential portrait and then a face casting made before and after his death, resonated with us.
Although most presidential paintings were traditional and sort of regal, former President John F. Kennedy apparently asked Elaine de Kooning to do something unique when he commissioned his official portrait. The portrait is semi-abstract with hundreds of strokes of greens and blues coming together to show Kennedy sitting casually on the canvas looking back at the viewer.
As the sun began to set, we rushed in order to see as much of the museum as we could. While most of what we saw were paintings, we did encounter a few sculptures including a James Surls piece!
Such a rich art experience on our first full day in our nation’s capital gave us the opportunity to encounter new artists but also to deepen our knowledge of the artists that we were already familiar with.
In leaving the Museum, we realized we weren’t too far from the White House, which prompted us to make a detour before going to eat.
Dinner at Oyamel
To cap off a long and rewarding day on the National Mall, we stopped in at Oyamel, a wonderful Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel. All the food was good, but we especially like the appetizers, which ranged from Brussel sprouts…
…to queso fundido…
The entrees were equally as good. We had a mix of food, with the shrimp and the tacos being the best of what we tried.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this turned out to be the best food we would have on our trip.