The Opening of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Art on This Day

On 17 March 1941, Franklin D Roosevelt opened the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC on behalf of the American People.

The Gallery was the brainchild of Pittsburgh banker Andrew W Mellon, who began collecting extensively during World War I. He acquired various other works during the 1930s and in 1937 an Act of Congress accepted the collection and building funds and approved the construction of a museum on the National Mall. The gallery was to be self-governing, independent from the Smithsonian, but took the old name “National Gallery of Art” while the Smithsonian’s gallery became the “National Collection of Fine Arts” (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

The neoclassical building was designed by architect John Russell Pope, but sadly neither he nor Mellon lived to see it completed, both dying in 1937. At the time of its inception, the gallery was the largest marble structure in the world. It stands on the former site of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, most famous for being where 20th president James Garfield was shot in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker.

The Gallery’s East Building was constructed in the 1970s funded by Mellon’s son and daughter, designed by architect I.M. Pei. This contemporary building houses the Museum’s collection of modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints. The design received a National Honor Award from the American Insitute of Architects in 1981. In 1999, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden completed the complex.

As Mellon had hoped, many benefactors came forward to donate collections to the gallery. Nowadays, it is renowned for its Italian Renaissance collection, with Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’, two panels from Duccio’s ‘Maesta’, and the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas, ‘Ginevra de Benci’ (below). The Gallery also boasts pieces by European masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, Impressionists Monet and Matisse, and Degas’ famed ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. More modern works include those by Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder.

The Gallery has hit the news recently – firstly, as the Obamas paid a visit in early March, much to the delight of unsuspecting crowds; secondly, as President Trump’s first proposed budget cuts funding to national endowments, which would affect both the Smithsonian Institute and the National Gallery of Art.