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The National Gallery of Art

by Katie Calvert

The National Gallery of Art, a prominent institution on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, was a gift to the United States.

Financier Andrew W. Mellon not only donated his personal art collection, but also paid for the construction of the John Russell Pope-designed building, which opened in 1941.
National Gallery of Art in DC west buildingEnlarged with an East Building (designed by I.M. Pei) that was completed in 1978, the National Gallery holds a remarkable collection of European and American art that spans eight centuries.
Mellon’s original donation attracted other collectors whose gifts have helped expand the size and breadth of the museum’s collection.
Central rotunda at National Gallery of ArtPope’s beautiful neoclassical building has a central rotunda. On the main floor, skylight-covered sculpture halls extend east and west, each leading to a complementing garden court.
Sculpture hall at National Gallery of ArtThe surrounding galleries display works that, for the most part, are separated by country of origin, style, and epoch. Among the paintings on view in the West Building are Raphael's The Alba Madonna, Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, Titian's Venus with a Mirror, and Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait.
The National Gallery is home to the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere, a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci that was likely commissioned to honor her betrothal.
Leonardo da Vinci oil paintingThe young Leonardo (experts think he was about 22 and still experimenting with oils when he landed this assignment) was not content to follow the norm and depict her inside the confines of a room. Rather, he painted the teenage Ginevra outside with a Florentine landscape as her background.
The portrait is a two-sided piece. The back, painted in tempera, is an emblematic portrait. Her Latin motto ("Beauty Adorns Virtue") is shown with a sprig of juniper that evokes her name. The laurel and palm in the painting denote her intellect and moral virtue.
ANational Gallery of Art I.M. Pei designed east buildingn underground concourse connects the West and East Buildings. Mellon’s son and daughter (as well as his eponymous foundation) paid for the construction of the East Building. Greatly needed to provide more space for the museum’s permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions, the building that houses the museum’s modern and contemporary pieces is itself a modern masterpiece.
Space near the National Gallery had been saved for just such an expansion; however, the parcel of land was an odd, trapezoidal lot. A very early drawing by architect I.M. Pei divided the space into an isosceles triangle and right triangle. Triangles and their sharp angles were used throughout the building in steel, marble, and glass.
Alexander Calder mobile in I.M. Pei buildingOne of Alexander Calder’s last works, a huge mobile, hangs in the building’s central courtyard. Works by modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, and Jackson Pollock fill the galleries. While on the mezzanine, be sure to look out to see Andy Goldsworthy’s Roof, nine hollow domes of stacked slate commissioned for a section of the ground floor covering.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture GardenThe National Gallery’s 6.1-acre Sculpture Garden offers visitors a beautifully landscaped space in which to wander—and sit—while viewing distinctive late-20th Century works. Weather permitting, an ice-skating rink operates from mid-November to mid-March in this outdoor space.
Plan a visit, check a calendar of events, view The Collection and more at the National Gallery of Art website.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson