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Highlights of the History of the National Gallery of Art

This timeline is an introduction to the rich history of the Gallery as a preeminent cultural institution. Selected key events from the museum’s past are supplemented with archival images, audio recordings, and other documentary material from the holdings of the Gallery Archives.  

Scroll down to view events by decade or click the line of dots below to navigate to a specific year.

For more information about the history of the Gallery, please contact the Gallery Archives

1920s
1928

Andrew W. Mellon in his apartment at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC, with A View on a High Road by Meindert Hobbema hanging above the fireplace mantel. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon first writes of his interest in establishing a national art museum in the nation’s capital. 

1930s

Click an image above to open the slideshow Masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum Purchased by Andrew Mellon in 1931

1935

Conceptual drawing for the National Gallery of Art by John Russell Pope, February 1936. Photostat of lost original. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Andrew W. Mellon commissions architect John Russell Pope to make the first sketches for the National Gallery of Art at a site on the National Mall in Washington. 

1936

Newspaper clipping, "Mellon Gives Priceless Art Building to U.S.," Washington Star, January 3, 1937. 

On December 22, Andrew W. Mellon writes to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, formally offering to donate his art collection and to build the National Gallery of Art. 

1937

West Building original construction progress, July 1937. Commercial Photo Co. Gift of Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

On March 24, Congress passes legislation to establish the National Gallery of Art. 

In August, Andrew W. Mellon and John Russell Pope die within 24 hours of each other, shortly after construction for the new museum begins (left).  

1939

Samuel H. Kress’s Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City with Pesellino’s The Crucifixion with Saint Jerome and Saint Francis, Domenico Veneziano’s Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Jerome Reading, and other works of art in view, late 1930s. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Samuel H. Kress and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation donate a collection of Italian paintings and sculpture, the first major addition to the Gallery’s collection (above).

The Gallery loans three paintings from the Mellon collection to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and three to the New York World’s Fair, the first loans made by the new museum (below). 

Click an image above to view the slideshow, Masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum Purchased by Andrew Mellon in 1931.

1940s
1940

West Building original construction progress, November 1940. Commercial Photo Co. Gift of Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Construction of the museum's building is completed in December and installation of works of art begins. 

1941

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of the National Gallery of Art, March 17, 1941. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The National Gallery of Art is dedicated on March 17 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at evening ceremonies attended by 8,822 guests (above and below). The museum opens to the public the next day.

Listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech at the National Gallery of Art dedication ceremony, March 17, 1941 (above).

The Gallery's first special exhibition, Two Hundred American Watercolors, opens on the ground floor on May 15.

Nightly black-outs of the Gallery building for air-raid protection begin on December 8.

1942
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Mill, 1645/1648

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Mill, 1645/1648, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.62

Joseph Widener donates the Widener collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, jewels, furniture, ceramics, and other art objects in memory of his father, Peter A. B. Widener (right). 

 

 

The Gallery’s most valuable paintings and sculpture are evacuated to Biltmore House in North Carolina for wartime protection.

The Gallery remains open on Sunday evenings for the "benefit of men in the armed forces and war workers in the city." Sunday evening orchestra concerts are presented through the generosity of Chester Dale (below).

The Gallery remains open on Sunday evenings for the "benefit of men in the armed forces and war workers in the city."  Sunday evening orchestra concerts are presented through the generosity of Chester Dale.
The Gallery remains open on Sunday evenings for the "benefit of men in the armed forces and war workers in the city."  Sunday evening orchestra concerts are presented through the generosity of Chester Dale.

Click an image above to open the slideshow, US Servicemen and Servicewomen at the National Gallery of Art during World War II.

1943

Lessing J. Rosenwald. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Lessing J. Rosenwald (left) donates a collection of prints and drawings, his first major gift to the museum. His gifts eventually total over 22,000 prints and drawings. 

The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, known as the Roberts Commission, is organized with its headquarters in the museum.

The Gallery accepts the Index of American Design, a collection of more than 18,000 drawings and watercolors documenting early American design and craftsmanship, and related research materials, from the federal Works Progress Administration (below). 

Click an image above to open the slideshow, Selected Works from the Index of American Design.

1944

The first annual American Music Festival is held on Sunday evenings during March and April in the East Garden Court.

Works of art are returned to the Gallery from wartime storage at Biltmore House (below).

Click an image above to open the slideshow, Return of Works of Art to the National Gallery of Art after Wartime Storage at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, 1944.

1946

West Building Main Floor gallery M-24. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

In honor of the museum’s fifth anniversary, six new galleries are completed for the special opening exhibition of the Kress collection. 

1947
Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, 1859

Rembrandt Peale, George Washington1859, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1947.17.16

The A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust gives the Gallery 113 portraits from the Clarke collection, with the provision that some works may be transferred to a national portrait gallery, should one be established. 

1948

Crowds in the exhibition Paintings from the Berlin Museums (March 17–April 25, 1948). National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Nearly one million people see 202 paintings from Berlin Museums during a 40-day exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. 

1949
Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambitions, 1910, printed in or before 1913

Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambitions, 1910, photogravure on beige thin slightly textured laid Japan paper, in or before 1913, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.308

A key set of about 1,500 photographic prints by Alfred Stieglitz is given to the Gallery by Georgia O’Keeffe, executor of the Stieglitz estate.

1950s
1950

West Building, Main Floor gallery M-60. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Twelve new exhibition galleries open on the east side of the Gallery’s Main Floor. 

1952

The first A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts are given by Jacques Maritain on the subject of "Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry." 

1953
American 19th Century, The Mounted Acrobats, 1825 or after

American 19th Century, The Mounted Acrobats, 1825 or after, oil on wood, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1953.5.18

Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch give 142 paintings from their collection of early American art, the first of several major gifts to the Gallery.

1958

Two visitors with the LecTour self-guided audio tour system in front of Winslow Homer’s Right and Left. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The innovative LecTour radio guide system is installed in several main floor galleries.

1960s
1962

Chester Dale in the National Gallery of Art West Garden Court, c. 1943. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Chester Dale dies, bequeathing his collection of modern French and American paintings to the National Gallery of Art. 

1963

Visitors viewing Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (January 9–February 3, 1963). National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The Mona Lisa, lent by the Government of the French Republic to President Kennedy and the people of the United States, is viewed by more than a half million visitors in its 27-day display at the Gallery.

 

1966

National Gallery of Art director John Walker (left), First Lady Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon at the opening reception for the exhibition French Paintings from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and Mrs. Mellon Bruce (March 18–May 1, 1966). National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

In honor of the museum’s 25th anniversary, the Gallery exhibits 19th- and 20th-century French paintings from the collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce.

1967
Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967.6.1.a

Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci is acquired through the generosity of the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund (left).

Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce donate funds for the new East Building.

1968

Early conceptual sketch for the East Building by I. M. Pei, 1968. Gift of I. M. Pei & Partners, National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

I. M. Pei & Partners begin schematic drawings for the East Building, which includes a new research center for advanced study in the visual arts. 

1970s
1971

Ground-breaking ceremonies are held for the East Building on May 6. 

Click an image above to open the slideshow, East Building Ground-Breaking Ceremony, May 6, 1971.

1975

The Collectors Committee is established at the Gallery and adopts a three-year program to commission large-scale works of art for the new East Building. 

Click an image above to open the slideshow, Commissioned and Specially Selected Works of Art for the National Gallery’s New East Building, 1975–1978.

1976

The exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun begins its US tour at the Gallery, where it is viewed by more than 835,000 visitors. 

Click an image above to open the slideshow, Treasures of Tutankhamun (November 17, 1976–March 15, 1977).

1977
Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1976

Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1976, aluminum and steel, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1977.76.1

The untitled mobile by Alexander Calder, commissioned for the East Building, is installed in the atrium of the new building nearly a year after the artist's death.

 

1978

President Jimmy Carter (left), the Right Reverend John T. Walker, and Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon at the East Building dedication ceremony, June 1, 1978. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The East Building is dedicated by President Jimmy Carter and opens to the public on June 1. Attendance reaches one million in less than two months.

Listen to President Jimmy Carter's speech at the dedication of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, June 1, 1978 (above).

1980s
1983

West Building Ground Floor gallery G-13, c. 1983. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

New ground floor galleries in the West Building open to the public. 

1984
Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949, oil and mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.147. Copyright © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.

The Mark Rothko Foundation gives the artist’s core collection and related research materials to the Gallery, which becomes the primary repository and study center for Rothko’s works of art (right). 

The West Building oculus project is completed, allowing the Rotunda to be seen from the Constitution Avenue lobby below.

Click an image above to open the slideshow, The Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting (November 3, 1985–April 13, 1986).

1990s
1990
Giovanni Bellini, Titian, The Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529

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

The masterpiece The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini and Titian is returned to public view after extensive conservation.

1991

The National Gallery of Art celebrates its 50th anniversary with an exhibition of nearly 300 works of art, given or pledged to the Gallery in honor of the occasion.

Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration opens in commemoration of the quincentenary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas (below).

Click an image above to open the slideshow, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (October 12, 1991–January 12, 1992).

1992

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel in the Print Study Room at the National Gallery of Art, 1992. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel donate their collection of minimalist and conceptual American art to the National Gallery.

1993
Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin Annunciate, 1495/1499

Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin Annunciate, 1495/1499, pen and brown ink, Woodner Collection, 1993.51.1.

The Gallery accepts nine old master drawings from the Woodner Family Collection, one of several gifts given by the family over the years.

1995

Crowds waiting outside the exhibition Johannes Vermeer (November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996). National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

In its 20th anniversary year, the Collectors Committee acquires Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bolsena) for the Gallery’s 20th-century collection.

The Micro Gallery, an interactive multimedia computer system, opens in the newly redesigned art information room in the West Building.

Three new cabinet galleries housing small Dutch and Flemish paintings on the West Building Main Floor are completed.

The exhibition Johannes Vermeer attracts extraordinary crowds and receives overwhelming public response (right).

1997

National Gallery Sculpture Garden ground-breaking ceremony, June 12, 1997. Left to right: Laurie D. Olin, landscape architect, Olin Partnership; Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art; Robert H. Smith, president, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art; Calvin Cafritz, president and chairman, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; and Robert Douma, vice-president, operations, Chas. H. Tompkins Company. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The Gallery debuts its website on the World Wide Web, which includes a database with information about works of art in the collection and related educational, exhibition, and scholarly resources.

Ground breaking for the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, a gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, takes place on June 12 (left).

1999

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden dedication, May 19, 1999. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The museum mourns the death of Paul Mellon, son of its founder, Andrew Mellon, and a preeminent leader and patron of the Gallery since serving as its first president in 1938.

The multiyear project to replace the original West Building skylights with new specially designed glass panels and modern hardware is completed.

The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is dedicated on May 19. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accepts the gift of the completed garden on behalf of the nation (left).

A redesigned ice rink in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden opens to the public in December.

2000s
2000

Designed to evoke the small private chambers of the Renaissance, a suite of three new Italian Cabinet galleries opens on the West Building Main Floor. 

2001

Left to right: Earl A. Powell, director, National Gallery of Art; Calvin Cafritz, president and chairman of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; Frank Stella, artist; and Jeffrey Weiss, Gallery curator, in front of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X, 2001. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Frank Stella's monumental sculpture Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X, a gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, is installed on the East Building lawn.

2002

West Building Sculpture Galleries, 2002. Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

            [GA IMAGE 98 and caption] West Building Sculpture Galleries, 2002. Photograph by     Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.
            [GA IMAGE 98 and caption] West Building Sculpture Galleries, 2002. Photograph by     Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.
            [GA IMAGE 98 and caption] West Building Sculpture Galleries, 2002. Photograph by     Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The redesigned Sculpture Galleries open on the West Building Ground Floor, presenting more than 900 works of art in 22 rooms.

 

2003

The East Building: Celebrating 25 Years (June 1, 2003–July 6, 2004). Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The Gallery commemorates the 25th anniversary of the East Building opening with special programs, tours, and an archival installation in the East Building Reception Room.

2004

National Gallery of Art Orchestra performing the 2,500th concert in the East Building, June 2004. Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The National Gallery presents the 2,500th program in its series of free Sunday concerts, which began in December 1942.

2005
Andy Goldsworthy, Roof, 2004-2005

Andy Goldsworthy, Roof, 2004–2005, Buckingham Virginia slate, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2005.86.1. © Andy Goldsworthy 2005

British artist Andy Goldsworthy completes Roof, a site-specific sculpture of nine stacked slate domes, on the East Building Ground Level. 

2006
Frans Snyders, Still Life with Grapes and Game, c. 1630

Frans Snyders, Still Life with Grapes and Game, c. 1630, oil on panel, Gift of The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Circle of the National Gallery of Art, 2006.22.1

Frans Snyders' Still Life with Grapes and Game is acquired with funds provided by the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund in honor of the 20th anniversary of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art, a national membership group to support acquisitions and programs. 

 

2007

Paul Mellon viewing Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas in the West Building Ground Floor gallery, 1983. Photograph by Dennis Brack/Black Star. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The centenary of the birth of the museum's greatest benefactor, Paul Mellon, is celebrated with exhibitions on Eugene Boudin and J.M.W. Turner, a new film about Paul Mellon's life, a historical installation, and other special programs.

2008

Artist Leo Villareal programming his Multiverse installation in the Concourse walkway, October 2008. Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

A national gift program is launched, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States.  Under the program, 2,500 works selected by the Vogels from their collection of contemporary art are distributed to art institutions in each of the fifty states. 

Sculptor Leo Villareal’s computer-programmed digital light project Multiverse is installed in the Concourse walkway (right).

2009

In the Tower: Philip Guston (January 15, 2009–January 3, 2010). Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

In the Tower: Philip Guston opens, the first in a series of changing exhibitions of contemporary art in the East Building Tower gallery.

2011

Audio tours of the permanent collection are offered to the public free of charge on new enhanced portable equipment for the first time.

2012
Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.44

NGA Images debuts as a free online open access resource with over 21,000 high resolution digital images of works of art in the permanent collection.

2013
Marc Chagall, Orphée, 1969

Marc Chagall, Orphée, 1969, stone and glass mosaic, The John U. and Evelyn S. Nef Collection, 2011.60.104.1–10

A refreshed website is launched, with new features, improved graphics, and an enhanced interface providing expanded access to museum and collection information and educational and scholarly resources.

The exquisite glass and stone mosaic Orphée, designed by Marc Chagall and bequeathed to the Gallery by arts patron Evelyn Stefansson Nef, is installed in the Sculpture Garden (left).

 

2014
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.10

The National Gallery of Art signs a historic agreement with the Corcoran Gallery of Art for stewardship of the Corcoran art collection.

26A5_101916_004_right

East Building plaza and tetrahedrons, 2014. Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

The reinstallation of 17,026 panels of exterior marble with new anchor supports is completed on the East Building.

2016

The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain, 2016. Photograph by Rob Shelley. National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Gallery, the newly restored Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain is rededicated on March 17, one year after custody of the 1952 fountain and its surrounding park was transferred to the Gallery from the National Park Service (left).

The East Building galleries reopen after three years of renovation of existing galleries and construction of new Tower galleries and an outdoor sculpture roof terrace (below). 

Click an image above to open the slideshow, East Building Galleries, 2016.