Thirty-five years ago on a college semester in Paris, I visited the Louvre. Like most tourists I made a beeline for the Mona Lisa and took a picture through the thick glass that protects her.
I would not see another da Vinci until this past summer when I visited Poland, and saw the Lady with an Ermine. Very few of his works survive and most are in Europe.
It was in Krakow, at the Wawel Castle that I learned this fact. Of all da Vinci’s paintings, there were only three female portraits. A basic google search brings this into question, but I am no art expert and was not about to argue with a museum guide. The guide said the Mona Lisa was one, Lady with an Ermine the second, and the third was called Ginevra de’ Benci and hung in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC!
My friend and Polish guide Radek was with me and was planning on visiting DC in the Fall so we agreed when he got there we would visit it together and join what had to be a small club of people who had seen all three.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday we visited the National Gallery. It’s right on the National Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. The museum has a world class collection including some of the most famous impressionist works known.
I also learned, however, that the Ginevra de’ Benci is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the entire United States! I’ve lived in the DC area for over 30 years and had no idea! This painting is approximately 540 years old and radiates timeless beauty!
The DC painting was, for me, the best experience of the three. The Mona Lisa constantly has a giant crowd around it and the glass case is so thick it’s hard to see the detail of the painting. The Lady with an Ermine though strikingly beautiful, is small, and heavily guarded in a rather dark room, and again, one cannot get very close to it, nor photograph it.
Meanwhile, in the National Gallery, you can get up very close and see the brush strokes! The lighting is ideal and the crowds that day were nonexistent. The painting is on a wood panel and features painting on the back as well!
If you’re planning a trip to Washington, DC, I highly recommend a visit to the National Gallery. Like the rest of the Smithsonian, it is free. It is beautiful, peaceful, and offers a glorious place to sit and relax after enduring the Air & Space Museum, or the Museum of American History!
If you live in the DC area, I encourage you to visit the National Gallery frequently. Visit just a single room or style and focus just on that. It is a world class art collection with free and convenient access.