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National and Modern

The great modernist patron and poet Gertrude Stein posited the dilemma museums faced in the interwar period succinctly: “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”[1] One of the premises underlying early 20th-century modernism was that the new movements represented a break from the past and in many ways from history itself. Ezra Pound’s famous imperative to “make it new,” rather than preserving the old, carried the day. The emerging institutions devoted to modern, contemporary, or, to use a period term, “living art,” which came of age at that time, had to either accept or challenge that premise.[2] Further complicating matters was the uncertain status of American modernism during the 1920s and 1930s, when a general belief still prevailed that American art of any period was derivative and of secondary importance to that of Europe.[3]

Founded in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) initially took the position that it would not form a permanent collection but instead deaccession works more than 50 years old.[4] It would regularly jettison the past in favor of the present. A decade later, the National Gallery of Art self-consciously distanced itself from contemporary art by adopting policies that prohibited the Gallery from including and exhibiting paintings in the permanent collection until 20 years after an artist’s death, and from deaccessioning.[5] At the time, these kinds of restrictions were a way for both of these young institutions to more sharply define themselves in relation to each other and to differentiate their missions from other museums. Such clear-cut collecting and exhibiting rules were, however, ultimately futile attempts to resolve dilemmas that 20th-century museums were constantly being confronted with in multiple forms, with new styles rapidly superseding each other and the present receding into the past at an ever faster rate. In time such rules would prove arbitrary and unworkable for both the modern museum and national gallery alike.

The formation of the National Gallery of Art was a particularly complex undertaking. By the early 1920s there was a growing consensus that the current display of works at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Gallery of Art, a disparate collection then consigned to rooms at the National Museum of Natural History, was inadequate and that funds needed to be raised to erect a separate building for the nation’s art.[6] The powerful Pittsburgh banker and financier Andrew Mellon, who had arrived in Washington in 1921 as Secretary of the Treasury under Warren B. Harding, intervened and made it known that he was willing to build an entirely new national gallery. Mellon soon also pledged to donate his superb collection of European old master paintings to serve as the core of the museum’s collection.

Officially authorized by Congress in 1937 and designed by John Russell Pope, Mellon’s museum was modeled on the National Gallery in London. As in London, Washington’s collection was organized by various national schools of art: French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, British, and American. At the museum’s opening, the many gaps in the collection and empty galleries were immediately apparent. For an institution founded upon the proclivities of a collector of Old Master painting it is not surprising that contemporary American painting was absent, especially when one considers that in 1941 the collection of American paintings from all periods consisted of 10 works.[7] The Gallery’s many lacunae served as a challenge to Americans to complete what Andrew Mellon had begun and to participate in the building of a new national collection through private means, a challenge to which the nation soon enthusiastically responded. But, like its sister institution in London, the work of living artists was not included in the Gallery’s portfolio.

Andrew Mellon’s approach separated the function of the new National Gallery of Art not only from MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art (founded in 1930) but also from Washington institutions that were collecting the work of contemporary American artists, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection. It also set the Gallery apart from the Smithsonian, where natural history and art history had traditionally intersected. By placing the museum on a wholly new footing, Mellon’s formulation gave the Gallery a fresh start as a singular national institution built for and dedicated to the great art of the past. Unlike museums of modern art for which the notion of a “permanent” collection was antithetical, Andrew Mellon envisioned the Gallery as a repository for time-tested, timeless masterpieces that would remain in its collection in perpetuity.

Mellon’s generosity received almost universal approbation, but the Gallery’s small American holdings, prohibitions against collecting contemporary American Art, and emphasis on other national schools immediately raised the question of whether it could truly claim to be a national museum. This was an especially pertinent criticism in the 1930s, when the federal government was supporting the nation’s contemporary artists through the programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Arts Project (FAP). The leading regionalist painter of the time, Thomas Hart Benton, voiced the concerns of many:

There is nothing national whatever in Mr. Mellon’s museum. We are fortunate to have it, to be sure . . . [since] the collection . . . properly regarded . . . may provide immense stimulation for art in this country. But [the Mellon paintings] are not our art and we cannot for a moment regard them as such. . . . If we don’t want our culture to be a series of imitative gestures we must keep our educational procedures out of the hands of those . . . who are so certain that art is an attribute of the dead that they put thirty year death clauses in their purchasing programs to keep out the vulgarity of life.[8]

In addition to the issues surrounding American contemporary art, the National Gallery of Art also had not solved the issue that led to its founding: how to consolidate and display the Smithsonian’s art collections, renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts in 1937. Cognizant of both problems, Congress, the same month it authorized the National Gallery of Art, proposed a “Smithsonian Gallery of Art.” In addition to housing its historic art collections, the Smithsonian Gallery would be charged with encouraging and acquiring the works of contemporary American artists, the best of which would in theory, after the requisite 20-year probationary period, enter the National Gallery of Art permanent collection.[9] In 1939, the cutting-edge architects Eero and Eliel Saarinen of the Cranbrook Academy won a national design competition for the new museum, to be sited on the Mall directly across from the National Gallery of Art Pope building. Stymied by a lack of private funding, the opposition of cultural conservatives who favored the prevailing taste for neoclassical public architecture, and the outbreak of World War II, the Saarinens’ remarkably prescient vision for a modern museum in Washington never came to fruition.[10]

Efforts to coordinate the missions of the various art institutions in Washington continued. In 1945, for instance, the Corcoran Gallery of Art curator Jeremiah O’Connor wrote to the National Gallery of Art director David Finley suggesting a cooperative arrangement that would carve out very distinct areas of responsibility: American art for the Corcoran and the National Collection of Fine Arts, modern art for the Phillips Gallery, and European art for the National Gallery of Art.[11] While a rational arrangement, O’Connor had overlooked the Gallery’s stated commitment to collecting American art of the past and, more understandably, failed to register the Gallery’s interest in American modernism. For, despite Andrew Mellon and his close associate Finley’s indifference to modernism in general, there were in fact a group of knowledgeable and influential supporters of 20th-century American art among the Gallery’s early ranks: John Walker (1906–1995), Chester Dale (1883–1962), and Duncan Phillips (1886–1966). Walker, along with Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg, had established the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art in 1928, a forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art, and personally collected American modernists such as Morris Graves (American, 1910 - 2001).[12] Dale was the friend and contemporary of many of the artists who had gathered around Robert Henri (American, 1865 - 1929) early in the century, including George Bellows (American, 1882 - 1925) and Guy Pène du Bois (American, 1884 - 1958).[13] Phillips, meanwhile, was responsible for the first museum of modern art in the United States and was one of the most enthusiastic backers of the artists associated with Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946), such as Arthur Dove (American, 1880 - 1946), John Marin (American, 1870 - 1953), Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986), Marsden Hartley (American, 1877 - 1943), and Charles Demuth (American, 1883 - 1935).[14]

Walker, Dale, and Phillips all honored Andrew Mellon’s emphasis on the Old Masters of European art, but understood that the National Gallery of Art, while it might defer or be circumspect about its decisions regarding what, when, and how to collect American modernism, could not afford to ignore the field if it were to properly represent the history of American painting. Reconciling the spheres of modern, American, and European art would always be a difficult task, and trying to clearly differentiate them a self-defeating exercise for a national gallery. A more flexible approach was called for, and, in the wake of Andrew Mellon’s death in 1937, just after the Gallery had received Congressional approval, it would be these younger men, all well versed in the issues of contemporary art, who would establish a more workable foundation upon which to build the Gallery’s American modernist collection.


[1] Stein was quoted by John B. Hightower, director of the Museum of Modern Art, in his foreword to Four Americans in Paris: The Collection of Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New York, 1970), 8.

[2] Albert E. Gallatin opened his Gallery of Living Art in New York in 1927.

[3] When Juliana Force offered Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s entire collection of contemporary American art to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edward Robinson, in 1929, she was summarily turned away. On the history of the Whitney Museum of American Art, see Avis Berman, Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 1990).

[4] For a discussion of this policy, see Alan Wallach, Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (Amherst, 1998), 80–82. Wallach’s third chapter, “William Wilson Corcoran’s Failed National Gallery,” provides a fascinating and thorough discussion of the historical prelude to the founding of Andrew Mellon’s National Gallery of Art in 1937.

[5] The 20-year rule was part of the formal “Statement of Policy Governing the Acquisition and Exhibition of Works of Art” that was approved by the Acquisitions Committee on April 28, 1938, and by the full board on February 13, 1939. The Gallery could still accept works by living artists, but could not enter or exhibit them in the official “permanent collection” until 20 years after the artist’s death. National Gallery of Art Archives.

[6] For the interrelated history of the two national galleries of art, see Lois Marie Fink’s definitive study, “Defining Art for the Nation in Two National Galleries,” chap. 3 in A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Amherst, 2007), 54–93.

[7] The 10 works were: Mather Brown, William Vans Murray, Edward Savage, The Washington Family, Gilbert Stuart, Joseph Coolidge, Gilbert Stuart, Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates), Gilbert Stuart, Lawrence Reid Yates, Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, Gilbert Stuart, John Randolph, Chester Harding, John Randolph, John Trumbull, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin West, Colonel Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill). An eleventh work was misattributed to John Singleton Copley as Richard, Earl Howe. It is now attributed to the British painter Joseph Wright as Portrait of a Gentleman. The Gallery’s commitment to American art of the 18th and 19th centuries was established at a time when many other museums were not actively collecting or displaying works from those periods. The Gallery’s goals were clearly articulated by its first chief curator, John Walker, in “American Masters in the National Gallery,” National Geographic Magazine (Sept. 1948).

[8] Thomas Hart Benton, “Art vs. The Mellon Gallery,” Common Sense 10 (June 1941): 173, as quoted in Lois Marie Fink, A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Amherst, 2007), 89.

[9] Lois Marie Fink, A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Amherst, 2007), 94.

[10] Lois Marie Fink, A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Amherst, 2007), 96–103. Also see Richard Guy Wilson, “High Noon on the Mall: Modernism versus Traditionalism, 1910–1970,” The Mall in Washington, 1791–1991, Studies in the History of Art 30 (Washington, DC, 1991), 142–167. Some of the elements of the design were later incorporated by Eliel Saarinen into the Des Moines Art Center in 1948.

[11] O’Connor attached a formal memorandum outlining these arrangements in a letter to Finley dated April 4, 1945, National Gallery of Art Archives. On David Finley, see David A. Doheny, David Finley: Quiet Force for America’s Arts (Washington, DC, 2006).

[12] See John Walker, Self-Portrait with Donors: Confessions of an Art Collector (Boston, 1969), 24–27. Walker owned several works by Morris Graves. In May 1945, he lent Wounded Gull and, in January 1956, Blue Bird and Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery to the Phillips Memorial Gallery (see information in Phillips Collection Archives).

[13] On Dale, see Kimberly A. Jones and Maygene Daniels, The Chester Dale Collection (Washington, DC, 2009). Also see Jorgelino Orfila, “Art Collecting in America During the Interwar Period: The Chester Dale Collection of Modern French Art,” Archives of American Art Journal 50, no. 1–2 (Spring 2011): 48–61.

[14] On Phillips, see Erika D. Passantino, ed., The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making (Washington, DC, 1999); Susan Behrends Frank, ed., Made in the USA: American Art from the Phillips Collection, 1850–1970 (Washington, DC, 2013); and Marjorie Phillips, Duncan Phillips and His Collection (Boston, 1970). Phillips was also an early trustee of the Museum of Modern Art.