- - Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Louvre’s biggest attraction is the “Mona Lisa”; at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” draws the large admiring crowds; at the National Gallery of Art, the top draw is … a painting of cakes?

Well, sort of. In reality, American pop artist Wayne Thiebaud’s “Cakes,” an array of mouthwatering, high-calorie confectionery, shares the distinction with the portraits of two girls separated by four centuries — Leonardo da Vinci’s riveting likeness of Ginevra de’ Benci, and Auguste Renoir’s charming “A Girl With a Watering Can.”

One way a museum knows which paintings in its permanent collection are winning the undeclared popularity contest is from the amount of attention they receive from gallery visitors. But there’s another method: the number of postcards of a particular work sold in the museum shop.

Ysabel Lightner, chief of the National Gallery’s shops, identified “A Girl With a Watering Can,” “Ginevra de’ Benci” and “Cakes” as the consistent top sellers with about 4,500 postcards each sold every year. With little difference between them, she said, it was hard to declare a No. 1.

The Lightner Top Twelve, compiled this week for The Washington Times, reflects the enduring popularity of French Impressionist paintings — one of the National Gallery’s great strengths — with four Claude Monet masterpieces and one by Edgar Degas, along with the Renoir. With “The Open Window,” a 1905 oil by Pablo Picasso’s longtime rival, Henri Matisse, French painters claim a majority of the 12 top spots.

"A Girl With a Watering Can" by Auguste Renoir
“A Girl With a Watering Can” by Auguste Renoir more >

The list includes one other Old Master work besides the da Vinci: Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” in a shared eighth place. The one additional American work is the signature Calder mobile in the atrium of the gallery’s East Building. The Picasso listed is not the colorful “Family of Saltimbanques,” but the darker, brooding “The Tragedy.”

Ginevra de’ Benci was 16 when da Vinci painted her, and 17 when she married Luigi di Bernardo di Lapo Niccolini in 1474. The painter portrays her as aloof and serious.

Almost 400 years later, in 1876, Auguste Renoir painted Mademoiselle Leclere, who, by contrast, looks as though she is having a lot fun with her green watering can. Recently cleaned, Renoir’s painting is vivid and endearing.

“It’s what people come to see,” said Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the National Gallery. “Sunlight, flowers, beautiful girls in beautiful dresses — it’s not Renoir’s strongest painting, but it’s very beautiful. How can you resist it?”

Mr. Thiebaud’s “Cakes,” painted in 1963, is a spread of 13 round cakes (in whole or in part) of different kinds, including a Boston cream pie, a Valentine cake and what the artist calls a “red dot candy” cake. The paint is slathered on in rich, creamy strokes — like icing.

The gallery shop’s stock of postcards is demand-driven. “We don’t have a postcard for everything in the gallery,” Ms. Lightner said. “The selection is based on customers’ specific requests, having visited the gallery, buyers wanting postcards similar to the ones we have in stock, and curators’ suggestions. If we have a postcard in stock that’s not selling well, we don’t order another print run.”

Sales figures scale down progressively from the top three, averaging 1,500 each for the four works tied for eighth place, according to Ms. Lightner’s numbers.

There is another reason why “A Girl With a Watering Can,” Monet’s “The Japanese Footbridge” and “Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers,” and  Picasso’s “The Tragedy” might get more public attention: The National Gallery is the only place where these major paintings can ever be viewed. All four are from the group of more than 300 works given to the gallery by American banker and collector Chester Dale in the 1960s, and one of the conditions of the donation was that none of the paintings would ever be loaned out.