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American Modernism and the National Gallery of Art: "The Perfect Place"

Charles Brock

The story of how the collection of modern American paintings at the National Gallery of Art was formed is a rather curious and little known one within the Gallery’s larger institutional narrative.[1] When the Gallery opened in 1941, there were only a few American paintings and no contemporary or modern art of any kind on view. It was considered a conservative institution mainly devoted to the art of the European past. And yet, in stark contrast to the older, more established 19th-century institutions on the East Coast, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, or the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art, founded in the midst of two of the 20th century’s most devastating maelstroms—the Great Depression and World War II—was markedly a child of the modern era.[2] From its inception, the Gallery’s institutional identity was both inherently modern and, as the nation’s gallery in the nation’s capital, inherently American.

Another important context for understanding the evolution of the American modernism collection is the debate regarding the museum’s organization that took place over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, before its official opening in 1941, and more specifically how that debate related to pressing issues regarding the role of contemporary art museums. The discussion of what a national gallery of art in the United States should collect and display took place in tandem with a consideration of what museums of American and modern art should collect and display. Then, as now, complex, dynamic problems surrounding the relationship of present to past and of modernism to nationalism and internationalism resisted easy answers, with theoretical ideals and strict divisions giving way to the evolving practical demands of running museums.

Given the Gallery’s conservative reputation, it is surprising to learn that the primary sources for the collection of American modernist paintings can be traced back to a coterie of its most influential early supporters. Almost every major development in the field of American modernism at the Gallery is indebted in some way to either its first chief curator, John Walker, or to one of three early trustees: Chester Dale, Duncan Phillips, and Paul Mellon. If American modernism was not a particularly high priority for the Gallery in its first years, these “conservative” modernists nonetheless helped to establish at a very early stage a commitment to the field that proved to be persistent and effective. One of the most significant examples of this falls outside the parameters of this catalog: the gift of over 1,600 photographs by Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946) known as the Key Set given to the Gallery in 1949, at Phillips’s urging, by Stieglitz’s widow, Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986).[3] While the Stieglitz photographs sometimes lay fallow at the Gallery as the status of the medium waxed and waned, O’Keeffe’s gift eventually led to the establishment of an independent department of photographs in 1990.[4] In the case of the painting collections, the masterpieces by George Bellows (American, 1882 - 1925) given by Dale in 1944 and 1963, the oils in the Stieglitz bequest directed to the Gallery by O’Keeffe with the encouragement of Walker and Phillips in 1949, and the construction of I. M. Pei’s East Building, erected in 1978 with the informed patronage of Paul Mellon, were all crucial to the development of the American modernist holdings at the Gallery. Dale’s and Phillips’s interest in the followers of Robert Henri (American, 1865 - 1929) and Stieglitz respectively assured that a critical body of work by the artists associated with these progenitors of American modernism was put in place. The East Building catalyzed an active dialogue between modern art and the past, and established an effective architectural and conceptual framework for further developing the Gallery’s American modernist collections.

This essay provides an institutional history of American modernism at the National Gallery of Art and demonstrates how, gradually, unevenly, and at times idiosyncratically, the Gallery’s holdings of American modernist paintings have coalesced around the basic structural elements established by Walker, Dale, Phillips, and Mellon. These broader historical perspectives are intended to complement the primary content of this online publication: the detailed entries on individual paintings by the catalog’s lead author, Robert Torchia, and other scholars.


[1] I am first and foremost indebted to Robert Torchia for producing such a rich record of the Gallery’s American modernist holdings. I am especially grateful to Nancy Anderson, Judy Metro, Sally Bourrie, and Lisa Shea for steadfastly supporting this project and guiding it to completion. Many thanks also to Harry Cooper, curator of modern art, who has encouraged a creative and productive dialogue between the American and modern art departments at the Gallery without which this catalog could not have happened. This essay has benefitted enormously from the expertise of my curatorial colleagues Nancy Anderson, Judith Brodie, Sarah Cash, Harry Cooper, Sarah Greenough, and Franklin Kelly. A special thanks to Sarah Greenough, who has served as my mentor and guide to the field. Finally, I would like to thank Maygene Daniels, Karen Schneider, and Jean Henry for pointing me toward so many illuminating documents in their respective archives at the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.

[2] The National Gallery of Art began accessioning 20th-century American paintings from the Corcoran Collection in 2014. This latest chapter in the history of American modernism at the Gallery will be addressed in future versions of this online catalog.

[3] See Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set; The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs (Washington, DC, 2002).

[4] Sarah Greenough has been the head of the department since its founding in 1990. The Stieglitz photographs were originally overseen by Elizabeth Mongan, curator of graphic arts at the Gallery from 1943 to 1963.