'Wind From the Sea'

Andrew Wyeth "Wind from the Sea," 1947 tempera on hardboard. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, HANDOUT / July 19, 2014)

Artistic attractions well worth wending your way to Washington for include two winning exhibits devoted to Whistler and Wyeth, as well as a fascinating show pairing Degas with Cassatt. There's a towering, even titillating, Titian, too.

Conveniently, they're all located along the National Mall. Three of them — "Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In," "Degas/Cassatt" and Titian's "Danae" — are at the National Gallery of Art. "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames" is at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Wyeth's windows

Starting with the most recent work on display, the Wyeth exhibit of 60 tempera paintings, watercolors and drawings, many of them never seen before by the public, is thoroughly absorbing. The works share a theme that has interested artists for centuries: windows. Wyeth's approach to that subject is as distinctive as it is haunting.

This marks the first time an exhibit has been devoted to his window fascination, which resulted in more than 300 works over the course of six decades. The idea for the project was triggered by a gift to the National Gallery in 2009 of "Wind from the Sea," a 1947 painting of lacy curtains caught by a breeze through an open window.

"I started to ask a number of questions about that painting," says curator Nancy Anderson, head of the National Gallery's Department of American and British Paintings. "And that led down a path. I discovered that quite a few of the window paintings had no human beings in them. This was a different aspect of the artist I wasn't familiar with."

The exhibit begins with "Wind from the Sea," painted from an abandoned upstairs room at the home of Wyeth's friend Christina Olson, who would become the subject of his most famous work, "Christina's World."

As the artist looked out the window, a gust of air suddenly stirred the curtains, making it seem as if the birds crocheted in the fading lace had begun to fly. The image made his "hair stand on end," Wyeth said. He set about capturing that scene and created something magical and mesmerizing. It expresses, as the artist said, "a great deal without too much in it."

Giving this masterwork added power is the exhibit's inclusion of studies Wyeth made before he created "Wind from the Sea." A couple of them are nearly as powerful, in their own way, as the finished product.

The Olson home figures in several other pieces in the show, to particularly striking effect in "Weatherside," a painting of the outside of the structure. Wyeth saw "eyes or pieces of the soul almost" in each window, reflecting "a different part of Christina's life."

Throughout the exhibit, it is possible to feel this extra significance windows had for the artist. In "Snowed In" (1980), for example, a watercolor on paper depicting Karl Kuerner's farm near Wyeth's home in Chadds Ford, Pa., only one small, upstairs window is in the scene, its curtains half-parted. It suggests a single, wary eye keeping watch.

Another wintry view, "Evening at Kuerners" (1970), has a chill you can almost feel, relieved by the soft light from a window of the house. A more impressionistic variation on the illuminated window theme is found in a dark watercolor called "Night Light at Kuerners" (1960), which gains extra power from bits of actual grass and mud Wyeth left on the paper.

The feeling of loneliness in "Cold Spell" (1965), with icicles dangling outside the window of a room with stained walls, is striking not just for the poetic image, but also the sheer beauty of the angular composition and the subtlety of the muted colors.

It's the same with "Off at Sea" (1972), a moody piece that can be viewed abstractly as a study in line, shade and shadow, but also as a psychological portrait of worry and possible loss. The latter is suggested by the single wire hanger on the wall. It is hard to stop looking at that stark object, which seems to have such a story to tell.

It was fashionable for a while to devalue or even dismiss Wyeth. Such views would be hard to hold on to in the face of the sensitivity, imagination and expressive depth on view here.

"Wyeth's reputation is at a real transition moment," Anderson says. "People are paying less attention to those who attacked him because he was popular or because his works sold well — all that stuff that's not about the art. I think this exhibit can enable people to think about Wyeth differently."

And keep thinking about his work long after leaving the gallery.

Degas/Cassatt

A short walk from the Wyeth show is a celebration of two great impressionists who were friends and collectors of each other's work — the Frenchman Edgar Degas and an American in Paris, Mary Cassatt.

The show offers about 70 paintings, pastels and works on paper from the 1870s and 1880s gathered from the National Gallery's extensive holdings and those in some other venues, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum.