National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Founding Benefactors of the National Gallery of Art

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These portraits depict nine individuals, representing five families, whose generous contributions to the National Gallery of Art earned them the title of Founding Benefactors. Each of these founders presented a private collection that could have constituted a museum in itself. Their combined donations established a precedent for giving to the nation that continues today -- more than a half-century after the Gallery opened in 1941.

The portraits of the Founding Benefactors reveal widely varying tastes in formal portraiture during the twentieth century. The paintings are presented in the order of the sitters' principal gifts or bequests, demonstrating a history of the National Gallery's development.

The Formation of the National Gallery of Art

On Christmas Day 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from Andrew Mellon offering to give his art collection to establish a national gallery. The proposal included endowment funds and plans for a museum building that he would erect. The press hailed Mellon's offer as historic. Some commentators called it the greatest gift ever known to have been made to any government by any individual.

Mellon requested that the institution not be named after him but, instead, be called the National Gallery of Art. The act of Congress that created the Gallery on March 24, 1937 provided that the American government would protect and care for the art as well as open the museum to the public free of charge.

The National Gallery's collections, however, have been formed entirely by private donations. Unique among the world's national art museums, the Gallery uses no government funds for acquisitions. In addition to the Founding Benefactors who answered Andrew Mellon's call for gifts, thousands of other philanthropists have presented works of art or discretionary funds since the National Gallery opened on March 17, 1941.

For more information, see Gallery History.

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