The US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was established in 1937 by a resolution of Congress, and with the support of a range of wealthy philanthropists who donated the original collection. The purpose built home of todays collection covers a large campus including an East and West building, and a 6 acre sculpture garden, making it one of the largest museums in the US. The collection also makes it one of the most admired and often visited US art galleries; around 4 million visitors a year pre-Pandemic.
The catalyst for the National Gallery being opened lay with philanthropist, art collector, and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who began collecting paintings in 1930 with the intention of establishing the gallery, that eventually Congress agreed to. The purpose designed building completed construction in 1941, becoming the largest marble structure in the world, and quickly attracted donations of original artworks from other collectors. The huge building nevertheless left substantial space on the building plot which saw the East building added in the 1970s, and the sculpture garden in the 1990s, designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin.
The campus continues underground; East and West buildings are connected by an underground walkway which houses a cafe and gift shop, but has also been developed into a complex art installation in itself, created by Leo Villareal and consisting of over 40,000 computer controlled LEDs.
The collection of the US National Art Gallery
Like most national art galleries in the west, the focus of the collection is on Western art from the middle ages to present. It extensively represents the evolution of numerous styles across Europe and North America, with a leaning towards American artists and works connected to the US. Original artworks include paintings, drawings, art prints, photographs, sculpture and decorative arts from many of the best known artists in the world, and the art gallery is regularly supplemented by temporary exhibitions looking at the history of art.
The newer East building includes offices and a research facility studying the visual arts, with the public exhibition areas focused on modern and contemporary artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, Calder, van Gogh, Lichtenstein, and Monet. The main building looks at earlier periods of art with an impressive range of work by old masters and renaissance artists, including Dürer, Rodin, Degas, Goya, Vermeer, Rembrandt, El Greco, and the only work by Leonardo da Vinci held anywhere in the Americas.
Enhanced by over 75,000 art prints and rare illustrated books from great artists like Rembrandt, Piranesi, Blake, Dürer, Munch, Johns, and Rauschenberg, the collection is an exceptional one, and it’s clear the US National Art Gallery holds as many treasures as any of it’s European counterparts.
Where the DC National stands in the world of great galleries
Unsurprisingly popular amongst Americans where it sits just behind MOMA and The Met, the National Gallery of Art is also hugely respected across Asia, where it is the favourite US art museum. It is also preferred over other US galleries in Europe, though falls short of the popularity of many of the European national and modern art museums and collections.
When all factors are combined it stands just outside the top 10 galleries in the world for reputation and quality, though awareness may well have something to do with this; the UK offers the most well known “National Gallery” in London, which may overshadow the similarly named DC offering, and the other US galleries offer more distinctive names and buildings to register in the wider consciousness of people worldwide. Wherever it sits in the rankings, the striking interior spaces and wonderfully extensive collections of artworks place the National amongst the greatest art galleries in the world, and a worthy competitor to offerings elsewhere.