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What Is the National Gallery of Art?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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The National Gallery of Art is an art museum in Washington, D.C. It houses one of the world's finest collections of paintings, photographs, drawings and sculpture in the world. The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in North America, Ginevra de' Benci, is the centerpiece of the gallery's collection, but it houses tens of thousands of other works by artists such as Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh, Delacroix, Rodin, Degas, Goya, and others.

Congress established the National Gallery of Art in 1937. The impetus for its creation was a substantial donation of art by financier and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon, a former US Secretary of the Treasury and one of the richest individuals in the United States, had used his fortune to accumulate one of the world's finest private collections of art. Toward the end of his life, he donated this collection to the country for the construction of a gallery, together with funds for a building to house it. Mellon had originally intended to donate his collection to the Smithsonian Museum, but his 1937 gift instead proposed the creation of a new gallery.

1941 saw the opening of the main building of the National Gallery of Art. John Russell Pope, architect of the Jefferson Memorial, designed this neoclassical building, known today as the West Building. Another building, the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, opened in 1978, and an outdoor sculpture garden opened in 1999. An underground walkway connects the two buildings. The West Building contains mainly art from the Renaissance period through to the 19th century, while the East Building mainly houses modern art.

Since its establishment, the National Gallery of Art has continued to acquire new works, cementing its reputation as one of the world's foremost art museums. In 2010, it was the sixth most visited art museum in the world, and the second most visited in the United States. Only New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art attracted more visitors.

The National Gallery of Art draws its funding from a combination of federal funds and private donations. As a result, admission is free of charge. The gallery is open year-round, closing only on Christmas and January 1st. In addition to its core collection, the National Gallery hosts temporary exhibitions including both works on loan from museums around the world and works which, although part of the museum collection, are not normally on display.

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