The library was founded in 1941, the year the National Gallery of Art opened to the public. Beginning with a small collection of books, the library undertook to support the curatorial and research needs of the institution's staff and occasional visiting scholars. Since that time, it has grown steadily, augmented by generous gifts from a number of the Gallery’s principal benefactors: Andrew W. Mellon, Samuel H. Kress, Joseph E. Widener, Chester Dale, David K. E. Bruce, Ailsa Bruce Mellon, Lessing J. Rosenwald, and Paul Mellon.
In 1979, with the move to a seven-story facility in the new East Building and the establishment of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the library broadened its purpose and the scope of its collection. It strives to serve as a national art research center, serving the National Gallery’s staff, Center members, interns, visiting scholars, the Washington art community, and researchers worldwide.