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New to the Gallery

Nat’l Gallery Displays Recent Acquisitions

Four years ago, Andrew Robison found himself somewhere between London and Oxford in a “cold, industrial warehouse” rifling through a collection of some 10,000 mezzotints owned by a “crazy Irishman” when he came upon the finest impression of perhaps the greatest mezzotint ever made: John Dixon’s “A Tigress.”

“There was a 14-month window of time” when the engravings were available, said Robison, the National Gallery of Art’s senior curator of prints and drawings, noting that as soon as the collector’s fortunes reversed the works were quickly taken off the market.

Luckily for the gallery, Robison by then had already secured 116 of the mezzotints — made by scraping away part of a copper surface to produce light and dark effects in the resulting work — two of which, including the one by Dixon, are on display as part of an exhibit of recently acquired prints and drawings in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building.

“This has just been an incredible five years,” said Robison, referring to the decision to showcase about 140 of the roughly 5,000 prints and drawings collected during the past half decade. The gallery, he said, adds an average of 1,000 works to its nearly 100,000-strong collection of graphic images each year.

Spanning the six centuries since 1400, the show features a number of notable firsts and assorted curiosities, including the pre-eminent extant impression of the first printed portrait ever made, the earliest German drawing in a collection outside of Europe, the first printed travel book with illustrations (chronicling a 15th-century pilgrimage to the Holy Land), and a rather humorous pair of engravings of a human skeleton juxtaposed against the first realistic printed image of a rhinoceros in the Western world.

In addition to works by artists primarily known for their printmaking abilities, such as Giovanni Piranesi and Albrecht D rer, the show highlights the oeuvre of those better known for their paintings, such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Klee.

Not to be missed is a delightful Toulouse-Lautrec sketch of a monkey playing with its toes, a brush and ink Munch interpretation of man’s brain, and the Italian futurist Carlo Carrà’s highly literate homage to aeronautical design and sensation.

The prints and drawings exhibit is the gallery’s final formal show to open this year, but it hardly marks the end of happenings at the gallery this fall.

In recent weeks, the museum marked the reopening of its Dutch and Flemish galleries — closed for the past several months for renovations — with the launch of the inaugural exhibition devoted to the paintings of the 17th-century Dutch artist Gerard ter Borch in the United States.

The ter Borch exhibit is the first of a series of five exhibits of Dutch art, including upcoming shows on Rembrandt and Jan de Bray, scheduled for unveiling over the next two years.

In his time, ter Borch’s highly refined portraits of predominantly upper-crust Dutch and charming domestic interiors featuring dashing suitors and pretty maidens influenced a number of his contemporaries, including Vermeer, and were sought after by everyone from businessmen to royalty. Even today, few artists have ever surpassed ter Borch when it comes to realistically rendering the satiny sheen of a lady’s gown.

Although the majority of the more than four dozen ter Borch oils on display hew to conventional subject matter, at least two provide evidence of an artist with more profound and varied interests.

The exhibit’s most memorable image — a shadowy view of the backside of a horse and rider heading toward a stormy horizon — is haunting in its emotional evocativeness. The cavalryman’s head slouches into his shoulders as his faithful steed clops onward in what represents a remarkable unity of color, form and overall compositional grief.

On the opposite wall, ter Borch’s portrayal of a nocturnal gathering of flagellants — blood visible through the tears in their hooded, white Klan-like robes — is anomalously jarring and horrific in effect, especially when seen in the company of scenes of largely de rigueur domestic drama.

At the end of the month, the National Gallery’s East Building is set to become ground zero for a new work by British artist Andy Goldsworthy. The site-specific sculpture, titled “Roof,” will consist of seven stacked, hollow domes with oculi 2 feet in diameter for viewing the interior.

Planned for the garden area on the north side of the building, the sculpture will mark the second phase of a two-part project begun in the fall of 2003, when Goldsworthy created and documented an ephemeral work on the site of the same sandstone quarry that furnished the stone for the Capitol and the White House.

The slate domes, scheduled for completion in February 2005, are intended to invoke the city’s domical tradition — ranging from the neo-classical grandeur of the Jefferson Monument to the more modernistic interpretation of the dome found in the new National Museum of the American Indian.

Finally, beginning Dec. 12, the East Building will also offer a welcome reprieve from the winter blues with a showing of the gallery’s fauve paintings, which is being organized in honor of the 100th anniversary of the famous French art movement’s official launch.

The epithet “fauve,” or wild beast, was coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1905 to describe the work of a coterie of young painters, including Matisse, Braque, Derain and de Vlaminck, who used vibrant, unmodulated colors in their somewhat “anarchic” artistic interpretations.

Standouts from the collection range from de Vlaminck’s cheery red, white and blue depiction of a tugboat on the Seine to Derain’s glorious, if unorthodox, rendering of London’s Charing Cross Bridge. So enjoy, but leave the Prozac at home.

“Six Centuries of Prints and Drawings: Recent Acquisitions” runs through May 30, 2005, in the National Gallery’s West Building. “Gerard ter Borch” will be on view in the West Building through Jan. 30, 2005. “Fauve Painting in the Permanent Collection” will be on display in the East Building until May 30, 2005. For more information on exhibit-related activities, go to www.nga.gov.

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