National Gallery of Art

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NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART. In December 1936, Andrew W. Mellon offered to build an art gallery for the United States in Washington, D.C., and to donate his superb art collection to the nation as the nucleus of its holdings. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended acceptance of this gift, described as the largest to the national government up to that time. On 24 March 1937, the Seventy-fifth Congress approved a joint resolution to establish the National Gallery of Art as an independent bureau of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Genesis of the National Gallery of Art

Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937), one of America's most successful financiers, came to Washington in 1921 as secretary of the treasury, a position he held until 1932. While in Washington, he came to believe that the United States capital needed a great art museum to serve Americans and visitors from abroad. He had begun to collect paintings early in life, yet he made his most important purchases after his plans for the national art gallery began to take shape. Most notably, in 1930 and 1931 Mellon purchased twenty-one paintings from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, USSR. He paid a total of more than $6.6 million for the works, including The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck, The Alba Madonna by Raphael, and A Polish Nobleman by Rembrandt. In 1930, he formed the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust to hold works of art and funds to build the new museum.

The institution that Mellon envisioned was to blend private generosity with public ownership and support. He laid out his proposals in two letters of 22 December 1936 and 31 December 1936 to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. These letters became the basis for the museum's enabling legislation. Mellon believed the museum should belong to the people of the United States and that the entire public "should forever have access" to it. To accomplish this, it should be open to the public without charge and maintained by annual Congressional appropriation. At the same time, however, Mellon believed the museum, which would be built with private funds, should grow through gifts of works of art from private citizens. To encourage such gifts, Mellon stipulated that the museum not bear his name but be called "the national gallery of art or such other name as would identify it as a gallery of art of the National Government." To ensure its excellence, he also stipulated that all works of art in the museum be of the same high standard of quality as his own extraordinary collection.

Reflecting the combined public and private character of the museum, its enabling legislation specifies that the National Gallery of Art will be governed by a board of nine trustees consisting of four public officials: the Chief Justice of the United States, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and five private citizens.

Mellon selected architect John Russell Pope (1874– 1937), one of the best known architects of his generation, to design the museum's original West Building. The building Pope planned is classic in style, but thoroughly modern in its proportions and structure.

The location of the museum was of particular concern to Mellon. He believed that it should be close to other museums and accessible for visitors. After considering various alternatives, he selected a site on the north side of the national Mall, close to the foot of Capitol Hill near the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. Construction of the West Building began in June 1937. In August 1937, less than three months later, Andrew W. Mellon died. John Russell Pope died less than twenty-four hours later. The building was completed by Pope's associates, architects Otto Eggers and Daniel P. Higgins, under the direction of the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust.


On the evening of 17 March 1941, the National Gallery of Art was dedicated before a gathering of roughly nine thousand invited guests. Andrew Mellon's son Paul presented the gift of the museum and the Mellon Collection to the nation on behalf of his father. In accepting the gift for the people of the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded the ceremonies: "The dedication of this Gallery to a living past and to a greater and more richly living future, is the measure of the earnestness of our intention that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on."

In keeping with Andrew Mellon's vision for the National Gallery of Art, by the time of the museum's dedication, its collections were already being augmented by gifts from other donors. In July 1939, Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955), founder of the chain of five and dime stores, had offered the museum his large collection of mostly Italian Renaissance art. The great Widener Collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, El Greco, Degas, and others, also had been promised. Nonetheless, vast possibilities remained for further expansion.

The War Years

The museum opened on the eve of World War II. Less than ten months after its dedication, on 1 January 1942, the Gallery's most important works of art were moved for safekeeping to Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. The museum remained open throughout the war and made every effort to make its rooms welcoming to men and women of the armed services. Following the example of the National Gallery in London, the museum began a series of Sunday afternoon concerts to entertain and inspire visitors. The concerts proved so successful that they were extended throughout the war and continue to the present.

The National Gallery of Art was instrumental in the establishment and work of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (the Roberts Commission). At the request of a number of organizations and individuals in the American cultural and intellectual community, on 8 December 1942 Chief Justice of the United States Harlan Stone, then Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art, wrote President Roosevelt to ask him to set up a commission to help in protecting historic buildings and monuments, works of art, libraries, and archives in war areas. The Commission was formed as a result of this request. Its headquarters was in the National Gallery building.

In December 1945, shortly after the close of hostilities, the United States Army asked the National Gallery to accept temporary custody of 202 paintings from Berlin museums until conditions permitted their return to Germany.

The move proved highly controversial. Nonetheless, the works remained in secure storage at the museum until March 1948 when they were placed on public display for 40 days. Nearly a million people viewed the works during this brief period. Following the exhibition, paintings on panel were transferred to Germany and the remaining works toured to twelve other museums in the United States before being returned.

The Collections

During the war and afterward, the collections of the National Gallery of Art continued to grow. In 1943, Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891–1979) gave his collection of old master and modern prints and drawings. He continued to enlarge and enhance the collection until his death in 1979, when his gifts to the Gallery totaled some 22,000 prints and drawings. In 1943, Chester Dale (1883–1962), who eventually assembled one of the greatest collections of French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, gave his first gift to the museum. When Dale died in 1962, he left the Gallery a bequest that included 252 masterworks of painting and sculpture.

Andrew Mellon's own children, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901–1969) and Paul Mellon (1907–1999) became the museum's most important supporters and benefactors. Throughout her life, Ailsa gave the museum works of art and funds that were used for the purchase of such masterpieces as Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci. Her brother Paul served as a trustee for more than 40 years before retiring in 1985. Paul Mellon also was an important collector, especially of British and French impressionist works. By the time of his death, he had given more than 1,000 works of art and generous endowments to the museum his father founded.

The East Building

By the time of its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1966, the National Gallery of Art had outgrown the original West Building. Additional space was needed for the display of the permanent collection, including large modern paintings and sculpture; for temporary exhibitions; and for new library and research facilities. Realizing these needs, in 1967 Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce offered funds for a second museum building. Architect Ieoh Ming Pei (1917–) was selected to design the new building, which was to be built on the trapezoidal site immediately to the east of the original building. The site had been set aside for the museum in its enabling legislation. Pei designed a dramatic modernist building, whose public spaces are centered around a grand atrium enclosed by a sculptural space frame. The ground breaking took place in 1971, and the East Building was dedicated and opened to the public in 1978.

Special Exhibitions

Even as the East Building was being designed and built, museums were becoming ever more popular destinations for the public and temporary exhibitions began to receive enormous public attention. At the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun attracted more than 800,000 visitors during the four months it was on view from November 1976 to March 1977. The Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Patronage and Collecting, the largest and most complicated exhibition undertaken by the Gallery, was on view from November 1985 to April 1986. It attracted nearly a million visitors who viewed some 700 works of art in 17 specially constructed period rooms.

The museum attracted national attention between November 1995 and February 1996 when an unprecedented Vermeer exhibition brought together 21 of the existing 35 works known to have been painted by the Dutch artist. The exhibition was closed for a total of 19 days during its showing due to two Federal budget-related shutdowns and a major blizzard.

In recent decades, the museum's collection also continued to grow. In 1991, to celebrate the museum's fiftieth anniversary, over 320 works of art were given or committed to the National Gallery by more than 150 donors.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

With the opening of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in 1999, the museum added an area for the outdoor display of large sculpture to its campus. Designed by landscape architect Laurie D. Olin in cooperation with the National Gallery of Art, the garden was a gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. The garden's design is centered on a circular pool, which is transformed into an ice skating rink in winter.

Museum Programs

As the museum enters its seventh decade, it continues an active exhibition program, presenting approximately fifteen temporary shows annually. It also lends its own works of art widely to make the national collections available beyond Washington.

With its superb collection of works of art and outstanding library and research facilities, the National Gallery of Art has become an important center for the scholarly study of art. Its Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) was created in 1977 to promote research in the history of art, architecture, and urbanism. The Center supports fellowships and sponsors lectures and symposia on specialized topics intended to shape new directions in research.

Education programs are an important part of the museum's activities. Regular public lectures, tours, and film programs help interpret works of art for visitors. An extensive docents program provides guided tours and other activities for school groups. Films and videos are loaned to schools throughout the United States through an extension program. The MicroGallery, an interactive computer information center, is available to visitors on-site.

The National Gallery of Art web site ( is among the most extensive art museum sites available on the Internet. It was among the first to provide access to complete, searchable information about the collection on-line. Extensive features and information relating to the museum's history, buildings, collections, and special exhibitions are included.

The museum operates an art conservation laboratory that monitors the condition of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, and develops methodology to ensure the security of art during transportation. Since 1950, the museum has sponsored a program to conduct scientific research into conservation methods and artists' materials. Research analyzing the physical materials of works of art and the causes and prevention of deterioration continues to the present.

To date, there have been four directors of the National Gallery of Art, including David Finley (1939– 1956), John Walker (1956–1969), and J. Carter Brown (1969–1992). Earl A. Powell III became director in 1992.


Finley, David Edward. A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.

Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Mellon, Paul, with John Baskett. Reflections in a Silver Spoon: A Memoir. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Walker, John. Self-Portrait with Donors: Confessions of an Art Collector. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

———. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984.

Maygene F.Daniels

See alsoPhilanthropy .

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National Gallery of Art