The National Gallery of Art opened in 1941 with fewer than a dozen American works on view. Among them were important paintings by Gilbert Stuart, the most accomplished American portraitist of the Federal period. The Gallery eventually acquired 48 works by Stuart, including the iconic “Gibbs-Coolidge” portraits of the first five presidents. Like Stuart, John Singleton Copley was born in America and studied in London, absorbing the lessons of Grand Manner portraiture and history painting at the Royal Academy. One of the Gallery’s masterworks is his dramatic Watson and the Shark, commissioned by Brook Watson, the survivor of a shark attack in Havana Harbor.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Gallery acquired numerous American landscape paintings, including Thomas Cole’s four allegorical canvases, The Voyage of Life, depicting stages of life within verdant or perilous settings. This important group was joined by other works by Cole as well as landscapes by such celebrated artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, George Inness, and subsequently by Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and others.
Winslow Homer is represented at the National Gallery by works from every phase of his career. These range from the poignant Civil War scene Home Sweet Home and the classic Breezing Up to one of his last paintings, Right and Left, suffused with intimations of mortality. Other depictions of figures at work or leisure include George Caleb Bingham’s Mississippi Boatman and Eastman Johnson’s interior and outdoor scenes. Thomas Eakins painted men in action, such as The Biglin Brothers Racing, as well as penetrating portraits of his fellow Philadelphians.
John Singer Sargent was an American expatriate artist renowned for his virtuoso portraits of upper-class subjects, but he also created bravura landscape and architectural studies during his extensive travels. Another American artist of international reputation was James MacNeill Whistler, whose astonishing Symphony in White, No 1 (The White Girl) was one of the first paintings to come to the Gallery.
American artists, influenced by their European counterparts, formed their own response to impressionism. Prominent examples in the Gallery’s collection include Childe Hassam’s stirring Allies’ Day as well as works by William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, Frank W. Benson, and J. Alden Weir. A grittier, urban reality is seen in paintings by artists of the Ashcan School, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Bellows. Bellows is best known for his powerful, vigorously painted images of street urchins, construction sites, and, most famously, boxing matches, such as that depicted in Both Members of This Club.
American still lifes in the collection feature compositions by James Peale, William Harnett, John F. Peto, Robert Seldon Duncanson, Joseph Decker, and others. Folk art forms another distinctive component of the collection, thanks to the gift of more than 300 paintings from Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, which included American naïve works by Edward Hicks, Erastus Salisbury Field, and Joshua Johnson. A similarly large and important contribution from Paul Mellon comprised more than 350 paintings by George Catlin, the famed chronicler of American Indian life. In addition to these substantial gifts, the American collection has grown steadily through the generous participation of many donors.