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Six women, eight men, two satyrs, and one child gather in pairs and trios in a loose row that spans the width of this painting, against a landscape with craggy rocks, cliffs, and trees in this nearly square painting. Most of the people face us, and the men, women, and child have pale skin while the two satyrs, who have men’s torsos and furry goat’s legs, have darker, olive complexions. Most of the men wear voluminous, knee-length togas wrapped in short robes in shades of white, topaz blue, grass green, coral orange, or rose pink. Most of the women wear long, dress-like garments in tones of shell pink, apricot orange, or lapis blue over white sleeves. For all but one woman, their garments have fallen off one shoulder to reveal a round, firm breast. To our left of the group, the child kneels at a tapped barrel, filling a clear glass pitcher with amber colored liquid. The child’s blond hair is wrapped in a ring of green leaves, and they wear a cobalt blue jumper over a white shirt with blousy sleeves. Behind the child, an older, bearded man wraps one arm around a gray donkey. His right hand, on our left, gestures toward the metal urn a satyr balances on his head to our left. A group of three men and one woman sit and recline around a second satyr to our right of the donkey. The satyr balances a wide, flaring blue-and-white dish on his head and one woman standing next to him holds a similar bowl and looks toward him. In front of the satyr, a man wearing a smooth, rounded, metal cap and holding a staff with intwined snakes at the top reclines and looks toward our right at a woman sleeping on the far side of the group. Behind him, a bearded man wearing a crown of laurel leaves, next to a large black bird, drinks from a cup. Next to this group, at the center, a man sitting on the ground looks toward a woman kneeling next to him, as he places his hand between her upper thighs. She looks toward the sleeping woman. Behind this pair, a nude, bearded man, with a ring of leaves around his head sits in the shadows facing our right, head bent as he plays a flute with one hand. Two women, one holding a jug on her head, stand to our right of the musician as a third woman in this area attends to a man sitting on the ground and drinking from a shallow, metal cup. His other hand holds the neck of an instrument resembling a violin, which is seen through the legs of the final standing man, to our right. The standing man hunches over and looks down at the sleeping woman, who reclines with her head resting in her left hand, on our right. One of her knees is bent and the other leg extends straight in front of her. The standing man lifts the hem of her dress as he looks at her sleeping face. Several objects are strewn on the rocky, dirt ground in front of the group, including a wide, wooden bucket with a piece of paper affixed to its front to our right, a glass goblet, a pitchfork, a large blue and white ceramic dish filled with grapes and small, yellow fruits, and an overturned cup near the center. Cliff-like, craggy rocks rise suddenly behind the group to our left, filling much of the sky opposite a tall grove of leafy, dark green trees to our right. A few puffy white clouds float across the vivid blue sky. The slip of paper on the barrel has been inscribed, “joannes bellinus venetus p MDXIIII.”

Giovanni Bellini, Titian, The Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.1

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The National Gallery of Art’s painting collection, like the museum itself, began with Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937). When the National Gallery opened to the public in 1941, the 121 old master paintings that Mellon had given to the nation were on view. Although the Mellon collection may not have been large, the pictures themselves were of outstanding quality and included important works by Italian, early Netherlandish and German, Dutch, Flemish, French, and British artists.

Inspired by the example of the National Gallery, London, Mellon hoped that his gift would attract other gifts of equal significance. This wish bore fruit in 1942 with the donation of the collection of Peter A.B. Widener (1834–1915) and his son Joseph E. Widener (1872–1943). Many of the Widener paintings were purchased in the late 19th century, and the collection has a cohesive character that reflects the taste of the period, favoring Italian High Renaissance, 17th-century Dutch and Flemish, and 18th- and 19th-century British art.

The third major collection that helped form the core of the National Gallery’s holdings came from Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955), whose philanthropy was continued by his brother Rush H. Kress (1877–1963). The greatest part of the Kress collection comprises a nearly encyclopedic assemblage of Italian paintings dating from the 14th to the 18th century, but it also included Spanish, French, German, and early Netherlandish pictures. Kress began to give paintings as early as 1939, but the majority came to the Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s.

Further rounding out and enhancing the National Gallery’s status as a world-class art museum was the gift in 1963 from Chester Dale (1883–1962) of French impressionist, post-impressionist, and School of Paris paintings. Andrew Mellon’s children, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901–1969) and Paul Mellon (1907–1999), continued the tradition of their father, the Gallery’s original Founding Benefactor, donating not only funds for acquisitions but also important works from their own collections.

While these contributors are some of the most prominent, the painting collection has been enriched through many generous bequests and donations since its founding. It should also be mentioned that the Gallery has one of the finest collections of American paintings in the United States, with works in all genres from the 18th to the 20th century.

Some acquisitions are made through purchase, based on the expert advice of Gallery curators, but it is important to note that such purchases are made with funds specifically designated for acquiring works of art. Although the federal government is responsible for the maintenance and basic operation of the Gallery, the art acquisitions are supported by the private sector. The success of this partnership is reflected in the National Gallery’s large and superlative paintings collection that spans the time between the late 14th and the 21st centuries.