When in Washington, D.C., visit the National Gallery of Art. The building itself truly is a national treasure, and the collection is wonderful. Plan your visit on line at nga.gov.
We were to visit the Gallery on the next to last Thursday of September. But Pope Francis appearred on the West Front of the Capitol Building that day. So, even though tired from an overnight train trip, we went to the Gallery on Wednesday.
It was a good decision. On Thursday, the Pope faced a crowd of people extending all the way to the Washington Monument. I would guess there were a minimum of 500,000 people and probably closer to a million. Negotiating the subway and streets in that mob would have been almost impossible.
Although we were tired and had less time available, we enjoyed seeing the Gallery anyway. Alie and I lived and worked in D.C. for nearly thirty years. The Gallery was a favorite hangout, especially when I was a student. But it had been a long time since we last visited.
In 1936, Andrew Mellon, who had been Secretary of the Treasury and was one of the wealthiest men in the nation, offered his art collection and the funds to build a building to house the collection to the Federal Government. The offer was accepted and construction began in 1937 between the mall and Pennsylvania Avenue http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/visit/maps-and-information.html.
Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the new gallery was built in a classical style. The central rotunda was modeled after the Roman Pantheon. There are formal public entrances on all four sides, although the exteriors on Pennsylvania Avenue and the East and West are not as impressive as the entrance from the Mall. Barrel-vaulted sculpture halls extend east and west from the rotunda to restful garden courts and fountains. The rooms flanking the sculpture halls are interconnecting so that a visitor can begin in one room and proceed without backtracking except where areas have been closed for special exhibits.
Now known as the “West Building,” the exterior was constructed of Tennessee marble over a concrete and steel framework. Polished Indiana and Alabama limestone was used for the interior of the main floor. The rotunda columns were made of Italian marble.
Neither Mellon or Pope lived to see the dedication in March 1941, but the building was completed using their ideas and designs.
Mellon’s lead was followed by other collectors. Each of their gifts might have formed the basis of a separate gallery. Combined, they give the nation a one of a kind collection.
Samuel Kress donated 375 Italian paintings and 18 sculptures in 1939. Joseph Widener, who built on the collection of his father, gave their collection in 1942. A collection of 22,000 drawings and prints and 350 woodcuts was given by Lessing Rosenwald in 1943. Chester Dale first lent paintings for the opening, gave 23 American and old masters paintings in 1943, continued to give more, and finally bequeathed the bulk of his collection in 1962.
Mellon’s children also became benefactors. The donated masterpieces and also contributed money to buy others. Paul Mellon and his wife gave more than 1,000 works of art including some 350 paintings of American Indians by George Catlin.
By 1967, the collection had outgrown the building. The Mellon children offered the money for a second building, the East Building. Designed by I. M. Pei, it was built in a modernist style inspired by the trapezoidal site formed by the intersection of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue at the foot of the Capitol.
We remember the East Building construction. The Tennessee quarries that supplied the marble for the West Building were reopened. But in an interesting twist, the marble slabs were not cemented to the structure and do not have mortar between them. Each was hung on the side of the building independently. The new building was dedicated in June 1978.
In yet another sign of our increasing age, the East Building, whose construction we remember well, was under renovation and not open when we visited this time. To bad we can’t be renovated equally well.
In 1999, the six acre National Gallery of Art Sculpture was opened to the west of the original building. The garden is linked in style to the West Building, and once again Tennessee marble was used in benches and piers at the entrances.
Perhaps we visited on a slow fall day. Perhaps the crowds were more interested in the Pope. In any case, it was a pleasure to stand close to a Rembrandt to examine his brushwork without worrying that I was blocking someone’s view. Alie, who has difficulty walking long distances, was able to easily see the Vermeer paintings from her wheelchair. What a contrast from our visit to Amsterdam! And imagine standing within inches of a Leonardo da Vinci painting – we were able to do so!
Click on photos to enlarge.