The National Gallery’s 31,000 drawings, watercolors and pastels date from the eleventh century to the present, including some of the finest Italian, German, and French works in this country, as well as important works by Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keeffe and sizeable holdings of post-war American works on paper.
Established in 1941, the Gallery’s collection has achieved world-class stature in a short period of time when compared to other major collections of drawings in this country and venerable European institutions. The rapid pace of its growth is even more remarkable when one considers that every work of art has been acquired as a gift or through the donation of private funds for its purchase; no federal funds have ever been used for this purpose.
Through the generosity of benefactors great and small, the Gallery's collection of drawings has grown steadily and impressively over the years. The first sizable gifts of graphic art, nearly 2,000 works, came in 1942 with the donation of the entire collection of Joseph E. Widener, including a fine group of Rembrandt drawings, plus 350 designs for French eighteenth-century drawings for book illustrations. Lessing Rosenwald began the largest and most important gift in 1943 by giving the museum over the course of thirty-six years his collection of 22,000 old master and modern prints and drawings, including outstanding medieval miniatures and drawings by Rembrandt, Nanteuil, Daumier, Blake, Whistler, and Cassatt. The donation of the Samuel H. Kress Collection and the bequest of the Chester Dale Collection, both in 1963, added excellent French and Italian drawings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recently, a series of donations from Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon further strengthened the nineteenth-century holdings. At the same time, the bequest of Armand Hammer's drawing collection, several superb gifts from Robert and Clarice Smith, and gifts and promised gifts from the Woodner Family Collection have added dramatic peaks and important strengths to the collection of European old master drawings. The twentieth-century collection, too, has shown spectacular growth with the help of gifts from Jacob and Ruth Cole Kainen, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Woodward, Mrs. Max Beckmann, Norma B. Marin and John Marin Jr., and the Mark Rothko Foundation. The collection of old master and modern drawings has grown through the generosity of many important donors, including William B. O’Neal, Ruth K. Henschel, Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, Evelyn Steffansson Nef, and Joseph F. McCrindle.
Since 1966, the Gallery has maintained an active presence in the drawings market, using donated purchase funds to acquire individual works for the collection. Purchase funds have also enabled the Gallery to acquire whole collections through combination gift/purchase arrangements, including the American drawings collection of John Davis Hatch, the old master and modern drawings collection of Julius Held, an exceptional group of Italian and German drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen collection, and the minimalist and conceptual works collected by Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.
Works on paper are highly susceptible to damage by overexposure to light and they can only be exhibited for short periods. For that reason, the Gallery maintains a schedule of changing exhibitions drawn from its own collection or borrowed from other institutions and private individuals. Works of graphic art that are not on display are divided between two storage facilities, with European art in the East Building and American art in the West Building. Both facilities are equipped with Study Rooms that are open by appointment to individuals as well as to classes and special groups.