The National Gallery’s 75,000 prints and rare illustrated books provide the broadest survey of the history of American and European art, with comprehensive collections of works by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, William Blake, Mary Cassatt, Edvard Munch, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.
It began with just 400 prints donated in 1941 by five collectors: W. G. Russell Allen, Paul Sachs, Philip Hofer, Ellen Bullard, and Lessing J. Rosenwald. Their gifts of important works by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna, Martin Schongauer, Dürer, Canaletto, Blake, and a variety of other fine printmakers were intended to lay a strong foundation for a national collection that would enhance and complement the collections of painting and sculpture installed in the public galleries. In 1942, Joseph E. Widener, donated his entire collection of nearly 2,000 works, including an extraordinary array of French eighteenth-century prints and illustrated books. Lessing Rosenwald ensured the future of the Gallery's graphics collection in 1943 by giving his collection of some 8,000 old master and modern prints. In the ensuing thirty-six years he donated almost 14,000 more, supplemented by technical materials such as carved woodblocks and engraved copperplates. His collection brought to the Gallery the largest gathering in America of rare German woodcuts and engravings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and prints and engraved copperplates by Blake, as well as comprehensive surveys of the prints by Dürer, Rembrandt, Nanteuil, Daumier, Whistler, and Cassatt. The Gallery’s collection of old master and modern prints further benefited from major gifts from R. Horace Gallatin, Addie Burr Clark, Rudolph Baumfeld, Chester Dale, C.V.S. Roosevelt, and Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner, Samuel H. Kress, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. In more recent years, the collection has grown spectacularly with the help of gifts from Jacob and Ruth Cole Kainen, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Woodward, Gemini G.E.L., Norma B. Marin and John Marin Jr., the Epstein Family, the Mark Rothko Foundation, and Kathan Brown. Combination gift/purchase arrangements have allowed the Gallery to acquire entire collections, such as Mark J. Millard’s rare architectural books and prints and Dave and Reba Williams’s exceptional collection of more than 5,200 American prints. Since the beginning, the growth of the National Gallery’s collection of prints has been due entirely to gifts and donations of funds for purchase from private individuals.
Since works on paper are highly susceptible to damage by overexposure to light, 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.