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National Gallery of Art

Written by arzepak

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.

The Collection
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.

East Building
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 Rockby 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.

 

 

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