Establishing the Museum
The National Gallery of Art was conceived and given to the people of the United States by Andrew W. Mellon, a financier and art collector who served as secretary of the treasury under four presidents from 1921 to 1932. During his years as a public servant, Mellon came to believe that the United States should have a world-class national art museum comparable to those of other nations. In 1936 Mellon wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to offer his gift of paintings and sculpture for a new museum in Washington, DC, that he would build and finance with his own funds. Roosevelt endorsed Mellon’s offer, and Congress accepted his gift in 1937.
Construction of the West Building
Mellon selected American architect John Russell Pope (1874–1937) to design the building for the new museum. Now called the West Building, it was designed in a neoclassical style that mirrors elements of Pope’s designs for the nearby National Archives building and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The exterior was constructed with Tennessee pink marble, and Pope specified that skylights should cover virtually the entire three-acre roof to illuminate and unite the galleries.
Mellon and Pope died within 24 hours of each other in August 1937, not long after excavation for the West Building’s foundations had begun, but the museum was built according to their concepts. The National Gallery of Art was dedicated on March 17, 1941, with Paul Mellon presenting the museum on behalf of his father to President Roosevelt, who accepted the gift for the nation.
“The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the measure of the earnestness of our intention: that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on.”
Creating the Collection
When the National Gallery of Art opened to the public, the nucleus of its world-class collection was 126 paintings and 26 sculptures given by Andrew Mellon—from Raphael’s Alba Madonna to Francisco de Goya’s Marquesa de Pontejos and Giovanni Bologna’s Mercury, which currently adorns the central fountain in the Rotunda. Mellon insisted that the museum not bear his name, believing that it should be a truly national institution and knowing that it would depend on generous gifts of art from many individuals to fill its spacious galleries. The National Gallery of Art became a “collection of collections” thanks to the generosity of founding benefactors Samuel H. Kress, Rush Kress, P. A. B. Widener, Joseph Widener, Lessing J. Rosenwald, Chester Dale, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, and Paul Mellon.
In the years since Andrew Mellon’s first gift, the Gallery’s collection has grown to more than 150,000 works thanks to the generosity of other individuals and foundations.
Fulfilling the Mission: Public Programming
In the Gallery’s dedication, President Roosevelt referred to the Gallery as “a living institution . . . dedicated forever . . . to the use and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” To fulfill this obligation, the Gallery established programs in its first year that have delighted visitors ever since.
The first temporary loan exhibition was held just two months after the museum opened Hundreds of succeeding exhibitions have enabled the museum to display art from a wider range of cultures and time periods than are represented in the permanent collection.
A horticultural department, responsible for maintaining the Gallery’s indoor and outdoor gardens, curates stunning displays of plants and flowers throughout the year—most famously the rotating Rotunda installations on view from mid-November through April.
Daily public tours and weekly lectures have been offered since the Gallery’s opening, and in 1942 the Gallery established a film program and a free Sunday evening concert series—the oldest, continuous series in the city. Public programs have since expanded to include a wide array of free educational programs and resources for visitors, teachers, and students.
Expanding the Mission: Construction of the East Building
Andrew Mellon anticipated that the National Gallery of Art would grow beyond the capacity of its original building, and, at his request, Congress set aside an adjacent plot of land for future use when it first established the Gallery. Plans for expansion were forming by the museum’s 25th anniversary in 1966, because most of its original galleries were filled and there was a desire to create a library and an advanced research center.
In 1967 Andrew Mellon’s children, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, offered funds for a second building, and architect I. M. Pei (1917–2019) was selected to design it. The modernist structure he conceived was inspired and informed by its trapezoidal site, located between Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall and between Third and Fourth Streets NW. To accommodate the unusual shape of the plot, Pei designed the East Building as two triangles—one to hold a library, offices, and community of scholars, and the other as public gallery space for the permanent collection and exhibitions. Pei linked his design to the neoclassical design of John Russell Pope by calling for the exterior to be clad in the same Tennessee pink marble used for the West Building.
Construction of the East Building began in 1971, and as workmen labored to realize Pei’s ambitious design, a newly founded Collectors Committee commissioned artists such as Henry Moore and Alexander Calder to create works for the East Building. This committee has made annual gifts of modern art[LS1] [BC2] to the Gallery ever since, including works by Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Tony Smith, and others.
On June 1, 1978, Paul Mellon and President Jimmy Carter dedicated the new museum to the people of the United States. With the East Building opening, the Gallery’s vision for a research center was realized in both the expansion of the Library as well as the creation of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). CASVA continues to build a network of scholars enhancing the understanding of art and architecture through professorships, fellowships, symposia, and publications, while the Library supports the academic community at large.
Construction of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The concept of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden dates to the 1790s, when Pierre L’Enfant called for a public, landscaped garden in his master plan for the nation’s new capital. The Sculpture Garden’s six-acre plot between 7th and 9th Streets NW was controlled by the National Park Service until 1966, when they signed an agreement with the Gallery to collaborate on its use.
By the time full jurisdiction was officially transferred to the Gallery in 1991, the Park Service had added a central, circular pool that was used as an ice rink in winter as well as an art nouveau-inspired pavilion and ring of linden trees. With generous support from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Gallery employed distinguished landscape architect Laurie D. Olin to refresh the garden’s design while honoring the existing key features. Once again, Tennessee pink marble was employed to create a visual thread through the entire Gallery campus.
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden opened to the public on May 23, 1999. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted the gift of the completed garden on behalf of the nation.
Completing the Campus: The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain
Another agreement with the National Park Service transferred custody of the Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain and surrounding triangular park to the Gallery in 2015. The fountain, completed in 1952 and located just north of the Gallery’s West Building, honors Andrew W. Mellon’s legacy not only as the founder of the Gallery, but also as the secretary of the treasury who advocated for the construction of the abutting Federal Triangle. When the central bronze fountain was constructed, it was thought to be the largest in the world.
The Gallery’s collection, its public programs, and its contributions to the study of visual arts continue to grow thanks to the efforts of countless supporters, staff, and other advocates who believe, as President Roosevelt declared, that “great works of art…are so clearly the property not of their single owners but…of all who love them.”
For additional information and resources on Gallery history, visit the Gallery Archives page.