A Brief History
The National Gallery of Art was conceived and given to the people of the United States by Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937). Mellon was a financier and art collector from Pittsburgh who came to Washington in 1921 to serve as secretary of the treasury. During his years of public service he came to believe that the United States should have a national art museum equal to those of other great nations.
In 1936 Mellon wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt offering to donate his superb art collection for a new museum and to use his own funds to construct a building for its use. With the president’s support, Congress accepted Mellon’s gift, which included a sizable endowment, and established the National Gallery of Art in March 1937. Construction began that year at a site on the National Mall along Constitution Avenue between Fourth and Seventh Street NW, near the foot of Capitol Hill.
West Building: Design, Construction, and Dedication
Andrew Mellon selected American architect John Russell Pope (1874–1937) to design the building for the new museum. This edifice, now known as the West Building, has formal public entrances on all four sides. Its main floor plan is centered on a rotunda that was modeled after the ancient Roman Pantheon. To the east and west of the Rotunda, barrel-vaulted sculpture halls lead to garden courts, where greenery and fountains provide a restful haven for visitors. Interconnected exhibition galleries extend to the north and south of these large public spaces in such a way that, in principle, a visitor can begin in one room and proceed through the collection without backtracking.
The West Building was designed in a classicizing style but built using the most modern technology of the time. Its exterior was constructed of pale pink Tennessee marble, while its foundations and first floor were formed of concrete with a steel framework. Polished limestone from Indiana and Alabama covers the walls on its main floor, and the Rotunda columns were fabricated in Vermont from Italian marble. The architect recognized the importance of natural light to illuminate and unite the exhibition spaces. To achieve this, he specified that skylights should cover virtually the entire three-acre roof.
Because Mellon believed that visitors should learn from as well as enjoy the art in the collection, works are exhibited by period and national origin in appropriately decorated galleries. The Italian Renaissance galleries, for instance, have Italian travertine wainscot and hand-finished plaster walls and are detailed with base and door surround moldings and include built-in niches to display sculpture, while Dutch 17th-century galleries are finished with wood paneling to evoke original settings.
Andrew Mellon and John Russell Pope died within 24 hours of each other in August 1937, not long after excavation for the West Building’s foundations had begun, but the museum was built in accordance with their concepts. Construction was completed by December 1940, and works of art were installed in the new galleries over the following months. The National Gallery of Art was dedicated on March 17, 1941, with Paul Mellon presenting the museum on behalf of his father, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the gift for the nation.
When the National Gallery of Art opened to the public, the nucleus of its world-class collection consisted of 126 paintings and 26 sculptures given by Andrew Mellon—from Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation and Raphael’s Alba Madonna to Francisco de Goya’s Marquesa de Pontejos and Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater. Yet Mellon insisted that the museum not bear his name, believing that it should be a truly national institution and knowing that it would depend on generous gifts of art from many individuals to fill its spacious galleries. Thanks to this foresight, other major donors were already giving their collections to the new museum before its opening.
In 1939 Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955) of New York donated 375 Italian paintings and 18 sculptures, which were on view with the Andrew Mellon collection when the museum opened in March 1941. In subsequent years he donated other important works, including the magnificent Adoration of the Magi tondo by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi and Laocoön by El Greco. Later Samuel Kress’ brother Rush Kress (1876–1963) and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation refined and supplemented the Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art.
The splendid art collection first assembled by P.A.B. Widener (1834–1915) of Philadelphia and later enhanced by his son Joseph Widener (1871–1943) had been offered to the new National Gallery of Art in 1939. The gift could not be completed, however, until the federal government agreed to pay taxes to the state of Pennsylvania. This was accomplished through an act of Congress in 1942. Over the succeeding months the Widener Collection—including The Mill by Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman Weighing Gold by Johannes Vermeer, The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini, and a wealth of sculpture, Chinese porcelain, and decorative arts—was installed at the National Gallery of Art.
In 1943 Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891–1979), also of Philadelphia, offered his exceptional collection of prints and drawings to the Gallery at the same time that he offered his illustrated books to the Library of Congress. The Rosenwald collection of graphic arts were considered the finest in private hands at the time, and the collector continued to acquire new works and add to his gifts to both institutions until his death. Eventually Rosenwald gave the Gallery some 22,000 prints and drawings, including more than 350 woodcuts from the 15th century—the largest group of these rare items outside Europe—and works by such artists as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, William Blake, Honoré Daumier, Paul Gauguin, and Pablo Picasso.
Chester Dale (1883–1962) of New York, a passionate collector of French and American art, supported the fledgling National Gallery of Art by lending seven American paintings for its opening in 1941 and 25 important French paintings later that year, selected to show the development of French art from the late 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. Dale made his first gift to the Gallery in 1943, donating 23 American and old master paintings, notably Both Members of This Club by George Bellows. Throughout his life Dale expanded his gifts and loans, eventually bequeathing the bulk of his remarkable collection to the Gallery in 1962, including Edouard Manet’s Old Musician, Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, and major works by leading impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern artists.
Andrew Mellon’s children, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901–1969) and Paul Mellon (1907–1999), also became lifelong benefactors of the National Gallery of Art. Ailsa gave the museum many exquisite works of art, including a choice group of small French paintings, and she provided funds for the purchase of such masterpieces as Ginevra de’ Benci, the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas. Paul Mellon, along with his wife Rachel Lambert Mellon, gave the Gallery more than 1,000 works of art over the course of his life, in addition to generous acquisition funds. His extraordinary gifts include some 350 paintings of American Indians by George Catlin, the iconic Boy in a Red Waistcoat by Paul Cézanne, and the largest collection of original sculpture by Edgar Degas in the world, including 49 waxes and 10 bronzes.
These individuals whose generous contributions first established the National Gallery of Art as an art museum of the highest rank are recognized as Founding Benefactors. Each donor presented a private collection that could have constituted a museum in itself. Instead, their combined gifts set a precedent for giving to the nation that continues to this day.
The National Gallery of Art assumed stewardship of a world-renowned collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and photographs with the closing of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in late 2014. Founded in 1869 by Washington banker and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran (1798–1888), the Corcoran was America’s first cultural institution to be established expressly as an art museum. Mr. Corcoran’s founding mission of “encouraging American genius” articulated his national aspirations for the institution, and this guiding principle informed collection and exhibition strategies throughout the museum’s 145-year history. The 2015–2016 acquisition of more than 8,000 works of art from the Corcoran collection of over 17,000 objects marks yet another transformative moment in the Gallery's history, one that deepens and expands public access to the country’s diverse cultural legacy.
Andrew Mellon had anticipated that the collections of the National Gallery of Art would grow beyond the capacity of its original building, and at his request, Congress had set aside an adjacent plot of land for future use when it first established the National Gallery. By the time of the museum’s 25th anniversary in 1966, with most of its original galleries filled, space was needed for expansion.
In 1967 Andrew Mellon’s children, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, offered funds for a second building, and architect I. M. Pei (b. 1917) was selected to design it. The structure he conceived is modernist in style and was inspired and informed by its trapezoidal site, located between Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall and between Third and Fourth Streets NW. To emphasize the connection between the two buildings, Pei placed the entrance to the East Building on Fourth Street, across an open plaza from the West Building. He divided the floor plan into two triangles: an isosceles triangle for exhibition spaces and public functions; and a smaller right triangle for an administrative and study center. These triangular shapes define the building’s major spaces and are echoed and repeated in architectural elements throughout. A large triangular atrium is the dramatic focus of the building’s interior public space. A sculptural space frame covers the atrium and allows brilliant natural light to enter the building.
Much of the structure’s elegance results from its extraordinary building materials, spare lines, and soaring forms. The Tennessee quarries that supplied the marble for the West Building were reopened for the East Building to effect a visual harmony between the structures. An underground concourse and street-level cobblestone plaza provide a physical link between the two buildings. Seven glass tetrahedrons and a cascading waterfall in the plaza bring light and motion to the underground space.
Construction of the East Building began in 1971 and progressed slowly for seven years as workmen labored to realize the architect’s ambitious design goals. At the same time, artists such as Henry Moore and Alexander Calder were commissioned to create works for the East Building. On June 1, 1978, Paul Mellon and United States president Jimmy Carter dedicated the new museum to the people of the United States.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
In 1966 the National Gallery of Art entered a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service to create a sculpture garden on the site immediately to the west of the original building. More than 30 years later, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden opened to the public on May 23, 1999. Major funding for the design and creation of the garden was provided by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.
Designed by landscape architect Laurie D. Olin, the six-acre garden is an outdoor gallery for monumental sculpture. Amid curvilinear beds of American plants and arcing pathways, visitors encounter such works as Spider by Louise Bourgeois, House I by Roy Lichtenstein, Thinker on a Rock by Barry Flanagan, and Graft by Roxy Paine. A circular reflecting pool and fountain form the center of the design, continuing the long axis defined by the spine of the West Building. The pool is transformed into an ice-skating rink in winter. The geometric formality of the reflecting pool and fountain links the design of the garden to the classicism of the West Building. The benches that surround the fountain and the piers at the garden entrances are made of the same Tennessee marble that had been used for both the East and West Buildings. A low granite curb surrounding the garden echoes that of the West Building across the street.
Loan exhibitions have been an important aspect of the programs at the National Gallery of Art since it first opened to the public. While the Gallery’s collection comprises primarily European and American art from the Renaissance to the present day, loan exhibitions enable the museum to display art from a wider range of cultures and time periods, including Art of Aztec Mexico (1983), The Age of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1987), Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia (1997), and Edo: Art in Japan (1998–1999). They also allow the Gallery to show works in its own collection alongside related works from around the world, as was the case for Alexander Calder (1998), O’Keeffe on Paper (2000), Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (2009), and George Bellows (2012).
In the West Building, temporary exhibitions are often installed in the Central Gallery and outer and inner tier galleries on the Ground Floor as well as in selected Main Floor galleries. In the East Building, large flexible spaces can be transformed to present exhibitions as elaborate and varied as Treasure Houses of Britain (1985–1986) and Art Nouveau (2000–2001). Three corner towers hold rooms that can be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of special loan shows and installations. Spiral stairs connect different levels of gallery spaces in the towers.
Several exhibitions in addition to those mentioned above have acquired an historic stature in the annals of the Gallery, among them “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci (1963), Treasures of Tutankhamun (1976–1977), Johannes Vermeer (1995–1996), and Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (2012). Exhibitions can be large or small, focused or comprehensive, but all seek to enhance scholarship and provide educational opportunities for visitors of all backgrounds.
Programs and Events
Educational and enrichment programs for visitors, both virtual and in person, are central to the mission of the National Gallery of Art. Beginning in 1942, a series of free Sunday evening concerts has featured the National Gallery Orchestra as well as musicians and ensembles from around the world. With programs offered in the fall and winter to the present day, this is considered the oldest continuous series of free weekly concerts in Washington, DC. Not only exhibitions and concerts but also public tours have been offered since the time of the Gallery’s opening and are now conducted almost daily. Museum staff and docents give gallery talks and tours of the collection and special exhibitions, with tours conducted in foreign languages at specific dates and times. The National Gallery has also been a leader in developing self-guided audio tours, which are available for the permanent collection in the West Building and for selected temporary exhibitions.
Highly acclaimed films and lectures are presented regularly, free of charge, in the East Building Auditorium and occasionally in the West Building Lecture Hall. Films screened every weekend in the East Building often relate to Gallery exhibitions but also constitute independent series. Lectures include not only individual Sunday lectures on the collection or specific exhibitions but also well-known series such as the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture Series (featuring distinguished artists), the Elson Lecture Series (featuring contemporary artists whose work is represented in the Gallery’s collection), the Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art, and the Wyeth Lectures in American Art. Public symposia are organized for selected exhibitions. Visitor guides, calendars, flyers, and brochures available online and at the Information Desks near entrances to both the East and West Buildings provide maps and program listings. “Less than an hour?” guides enable visitors to view highlights in both East and West Buildings.
Very active and popular programs for children and for students and teachers are designed to reach enthusiastic groups of visitors through family activities, films for children and teens, volunteer opportunities, school tours, high school seminars, teacher workshops, and an annual teacher institute that explores a particular subject in considerable depth. Year-round programs bring children and youth to the museum with their families or teachers to learn about art in creative and engaging ways, beginning at age 4 with Stories in Art and at age 8 with Artful Conversations.
The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts was established at the National Gallery as an integral part of the opening of the East Building in 1978. It brings scholars together in close relationship to the Gallery’s art collection and museum colleagues, enhancing the understanding of art and architecture. The Center (also known as CASVA) hosts visiting scholars from around the world through sponsored professorships and fellowships; it organizes meetings and symposia related to its members’ research; and it publishes volumes in connection with its symposia, seminars, and long-term research projects.
A major art research library located in the East Building houses a collection of more than 400,000 books, periodicals, and documents on the history, theory, and criticism of art and architecture. The emphasis is on Western art from the Middle Ages to the present, including monographs, exhibition and collection catalogues, and an exceptional selection of rare books. Its department of image collections holds some 13 million photographs, slides, negatives, and microform images of Western art and architecture. Readers may make an appointment to use the National Gallery Library on weekdays.
The Gallery Archives holds documents, photographs, architectural drawings, and digital files relating to the history of the National Gallery of Art and its building campus. It is the primary source of information concerning past activities, exhibitions, and events at the National Gallery of Art, and for the design and construction of its buildings.
Indoor and outdoor gardens are an important part of the West Building’s original design. The interior Garden Courts feature tropical foliage and provide a place of relaxation for visitors, while the exterior fountains and surrounding landscape enhance the entrances to the building. Changing floral displays include seasonal arrangements of flowering plants in the Rotunda such as the Ames-Haskell azalea collection, given in honor of the Gallery’s 50th anniversary in 1991.
For more than 50 years, plants have also played a role in specific exhibitions. In 1953 displays of orchids from Dumbarton Oaks enriched the presentation of Japanese Painting and Sculpture from the Sixth Century A.D. to the Nineteenth Century. In 1976 The Eye of Thomas Jefferson included a garden with more than 500 plants from some 30 species of interest to Jefferson. In 1988–1989, for Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, the National Gallery constructed a teahouse and traditional garden on the main floor of the East Building, where tea ceremonies were held on several occasions. And in 2008–2009 Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples featured plantings typically found in villa gardens.
Plants are an essential element in the East Building, with interior trees in the atrium bringing a sense of scale to the enormous space. Following construction, more than 250 new trees were planted around the building and on the plaza between the East and West Buildings. Noted landscape architect Dan Kiley was the primary landscape consultant for the East Building project.
With the opening of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in May 1999, horticulture gained new prominence on the Gallery campus. Concentric circles of Littleleaf Lindens surround the fountain at the center of the garden, while plantings of native American trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, and flowering annuals provide a distinctive setting for the installation of monumental works of modern and contemporary sculpture.