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Susan Stamberg

Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal doesn't quite look like a Vermeer painting. The titular young woman is klutzy at her keyboard, and graceless. She's also sitting in a dark room — none of that ethereal, luminous light Vermeer normally shines on his subjects.

Vermeer created the painting in 1675, when he was in his early 40s and broke. It was the last year of his short life. National Gallery curator Arthur Wheelock says, "We know that he dies suddenly and may be ill, so I don't know what effect that might have on this [painting]."

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In 1880, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, age 41, wrote to a friend that he was in a riverside town near Paris painting oarsmen. He'd been "itching" to do it for a long time: "I'm not getting any younger," he wrote, "and didn't want to defer this little festivity." Now that painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, is the star of a new exhibition at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

From baseball caps to saris to the little black dress, there's a social history woven into the clothing we wear. A new exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) explores that history. "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" looks at some of the garments that changed the world — but the show less about fashion, and more about design, history and why things last.

One hundred years ago, the U.S. entered the first global war — an ugly, dirty, agonizing conflict that cost millions of lives and changed the world. Now, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is observing the centennial with art and artifacts in an exhibition called Artist Soldiers.

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