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Must-Sees at the National Gallery

Welcome! Visiting for the first time? Only have an hour to spend? That's enough time to connect with intimate portraits, discover "action painting," and meet a 14-foot-tall rooster. 

The National Gallery is the museum of the nation—your museum! Come inside to explore and experience art, creativity, and our shared humanity. 

These must-see artworks offer a glimpse of the incredible variety of artists, materials, and spaces across our campus. So grab a map and visit them in any order you choose.

West Building Must-Sees

Here you'll find works from the 11th through the early 20th century. Opened in 1941, this first National Gallery building was architect John Russell Pope's last design. The domed rotunda in its center is based on the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. 

Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave

Carved from creamy white marble, a nude woman stands next to a hip-high support, perhaps a low post. In this photograph, her body faces us, and she looks down to our right in profile. Her wavy hair is tucked behind her ear and drawn back in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her weight rests on her left leg, on our right, and her other knee is bent. Her left arm is angled in front of her body so her hand covers her groin. Her other hand, on our left, rests on the post. Chains hang from shackles encircling her wrists. The post is covered with a cloth that gathers around the top and spirals to the ground beneath her feet, the edge trimmed with tassels. A cross and medallion peek out from under the cloth near her hand. She stands on a circular base.
Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave, model 1841-1843, carved 1846, Seravezza marble, 2014.79.37

When this statue of an enslaved woman toured the United States in the late 1840s, its full nudity shocked many vieweres. The subject relates to Greece's struggle for independence in the 1820s, but the anti-slavery message made it a favorite among US abolitionists. It is one of the most famous sculptures in US history.

Not on view

Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation

A woman and winged angel, both with pale, peach skin, are situated in a church interior in this tall, narrow painting. To our left, the angel has long, blond, curly hair, smooth skin, and is smiling. The wings are outlined in royal blue, and they blend from blue to green to yellow to crimson. The angel holds one hand, closer to us, up at chest height with the index finger subtly pointing upward. Holding a long scepter in the other hand, the angel angles their body toward the woman to our right. The angel wears a gold jewel and pearl-encrusted crown and a jeweled long, voluminous robe in scarlet-red and shimmering gold brocade. The neck and along the opening down the front are lined with pearls and jewels. The angel looks toward the woman, who wears a royal-blue dress tied with a red belt at the high waist. Her long brown hair is tied back but one tendril falls over her left shoulder, to our right. She kneels facing us with her raised hands facing outward. Her head is tipped a bit to our left, and she looks up and into the distance to our right with lips slightly parted. She kneels behind a book lying open on a low table. A vase of white lilies and a red cushion lies on the floor in front of the table, close to us. The floor is decorated with people and scenes outlined in black and set into square panels, as if inlaid with wood. The church behind and above the people has a row of tall, narrow arches with bull’s-eye glass windows. A walkway lined with columns runs above the arches, and sunlight comes in through arched windows under the flat wood ceiling. A white dove flies toward the woman on gold lines from a window at the upper left of the painting. Latin words painted in gold capital letters are exchanged between the people. The angel says, “AVE GRA PLENA.” The letters of the woman’s response are painted upside down and backward: “ECCE ANCILLA DNI.”
Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436, oil on canvas transferred from panel, 1937.1.39

In a scene from the Bible, the angel Gabriel delivers a message from God: that Mary will bear his son, Jesus. Van Eyck included Gabriel's words (in Latin) in the painting. He shows Mary's reply too, but her words are upside down, intended to be read from above. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and white lilies symbolize Mary's purity. In the floor tiles, scenes from the Hebrew bible foreshadow Jesus's life.

Not on view

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci

This square portrait shows the head and shoulders of a young woman in front of a spiky bush that fills much of the background except for a landscape view that extends into the deep distance to our right. The woman's body is angled to our right but her face turns to us. She has chalk-white, smooth skin with heavily lidded, light brown eyes, and her pale pink lips are closed. Pale blush highlights her cheeks, and she looks either at us or very slightly away from our eyes. Her brown hair is parted down the middle and pulled back, but tight, lively curls frame her face. Her hair turns gold where the light shines on it. She wears a brown dress, trimmed along the square neckline with gold. The front of the bodice is tied with a blue ribbon, and the lacing holes are also edged with gold. A sheer white veil covers her chest and is pinned at the center with a small gold ball. The bush fills the space around her head with copper-brown, spiky leaves. A river winds between trees and rolling hills in the distance to our right. Trees and a town along the horizon, which comes about halfway up the painting, is pale blue under an ice-blue sky.
Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, 1967.6.1.a

This is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, one of the only three of his surviving portraits of women. Likely painted at the time of her engagement at 16, it depicts an intelligent and confident Ginevra de' Benci. Wealthy women were often isolated at home, but she is outside, surrounded by juniper leaves—a play on her name in Italian. On the back of the painting the artist included a laurel branch, a symbolic reference to the young woman being a poet.

Main Floor, Gallery 6

Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother

Shown from the knees up, a woman with brown, wrinkled skin, wearing a white blouse, apron, and black skirt is shown in front of a pale gray background in this vertical portrait painting. Straight-backed, she faces and looks at us with her hands resting in her lap. Her wavy, iron-gray hair is parted in the center and pulled back from her face. Her eyebrows are slightly raised, and her face is deeply lined down her cheeks and around her mouth. She wears a heart-shaped brooch with a red stone at its center at her neck and a gold band on her left ring finger. The light coming from our left casts a shadow against the wall to our right. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower right corner: “A.J. MOTLEY. JR. 1922.”
Archibald John Motley Jr., Portrait of My Grandmother, 1922, oil on canvas, 2018.2.1

This intimate portrait of Emily Sims Motley, the artist's 80-year-old grandmother, captures her powerful presence. Born enslaved in Louisiana, she lived through the Civil War and eventually settled in Chicago. The different textures in her blouse, its sheer sleeves and detailed buttons, show the artist's skill with color. Motley depicts Emily's creased face and age-worn hands with compassion and honesty, suggesting his deep love for her.

Main Floor, Gallery 66

Mary Cassatt, Children Playing on the Beach

Two pale-skinned little girls sit back-to-back on a sandy beach, almost filling the width of this vertical painting. The girls wear matching pale, ice-blue pinafores over short sleeve, ocean-blue dresses. Both sit with their legs stretched in front of them and angled to our right. The girl closest to us, to our left, looks down at the denim-blue pail and wooden shovel she holds between her ankles. She holds the long-handled shovel in her near hand with the end inside the pail. She has a chubby, flushed, round face with blond hair and rosy arms and legs. She wears black shoes and appears to have a brown sock on her near leg but a dark blue sock on the other. Her companion sits just beyond her and to our right with her body turned away from us. Her wide-brimmed straw hat is trimmed with a tomato-red ribbon tied in a bow at the front. The hat hides her face, and her outstretched legs are encased in olive-green stockings. Her near hand reaches across her lap to grab the pail sitting on the far side of her legs. The beach meets the pale blue and aquamarine ocean in the upper third of the painting. A patch of strokes and daubs of dark blue and peach near the upper left and a tan wedge in the water to our right are painted loosely along the shoreline. Two white sailboats and a horizontal white dash with three dark blue dots drift on the water. The artist signed the lower right, “Mary Cassatt.”
Mary Cassatt, Children Playing on the Beach, 1884, oil on canvas, 1970.17.19

Women and children were often the focus of Mary Cassatt's art. Here, two little girls—perhaps sisters or cousins—dig in the sand, side by side. Cassatt had been very close with her sister Lydia, who died two years before the artist made this painting.

Not on view

East Building Must-Sees

Discover our collection of modern and contemporary art. Opened in 1978, the light-filled building is widely considered I. M. Pei's most ambitious design. Look for the many triangles in its architecture.

Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques

A group of three men, two children, and one woman gather in an empty, dusky rose-pink landscape under a blue, cloudy sky in this nearly square painting. Most of the people have muted, peachy skin, and the woman and the youngest boy have cream-white skin. The woman sits on the ground to our right, apart from the rest of the men and children. She wears a coral-red skirt, a beige shawl, and straw hat, and she looks into the distance to our right. The others stand in a loose semi-circle on the left half of the composition. A man wearing a multicolored, diamond-patterned costume stands with his back to us to the left. He looks to our right in profile and holds the hand of a little girl who also stands with her back to us. She wears a pink dress and white stockings, and her right hand rests on the tall handle of a white basket. A portly man wearing a scarlet-red jester’s costume and pointed hat stands opposite this pair, facing us to our right. Next to him to our right a young man wears a tan-colored leotard with a black bottom. He holds a barrel over his right shoulder and looks over to our right. The sixth person is the youngest boy, who wears a baggy blue and red outfit, and he looks toward the woman. The eyes of all the figures are deeply shadowed.
Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, 1963.10.190

As a young artist, Piccaso searched for recognition and belonging. He captured his sense of unease in this painting of wandering performers (saltimbanques). Picasso identified with these lonely-looking entertainers and included himself among the group, in the diamond-printed costume.

Mezzanine, Gallery 217

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

Densely spaced lines and splatters in black, white, pale salmon pink, teal, and steel gray crisscross a rectangular cream-colored canvas in this abstract horizontal painting. The lines move in every direction. Most are straight but some curve slightly. The density eases a bit near the edges. Two sets of ghostly white handprints are visible at the upper corners. The artist signed and dated the painting in black paint in the lower left corner: “Jackson Pollock ’50.”
Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, 1976.37.1

Pollock laid this large canvas on the floor of his studio barn in Long Island, and walked around it dripping, pouring, and flinging paint from brushes and sticks. This practice, which we now know as "action painting," was his way of being in his work, actively becoming part of the creative process. Look for Pollock's "signature" at the top of the canvas—his handprints.

Upper Level, Gallery 407

Georgia O'Keeffe, Shell No. 1

The spiraling whorls of a nearly round, pearl-white shell fills this square painting. The inner edges of the shell’s whorls are shaded with pale spring green, especially to our right, and the innermost spiral is pale pink. The outer lip, that is, the open end of the shell, faces down to our right. The shell sits against a stone-gray background and casts a shadow to our left.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Shell No. I, 1928, oil on canvas, 1987.58.7

O'Keeffe is famous for her paintings of nature: plants, flowers, bones, and the New Mexico desert. Picking up seashells along the beach was one of her favorite activities. She displayed her collection at her home in New Mexico and often drew and painted her favorite shells.

Upper Level, Gallery 415

Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington

This nearly square, abstract painting is filled with circles within circles, like nested rings, each of a single bright color against the ivory white of the canvas. Each ring is made up of a series of short, rectangular dashes, and some bands are narrower while others are a bit wider. The majority of the rings are crimson and brick red, and they are interspersed with bands of lapis blue, army green, and pale pink. One of two pumpkin-orange bands is the smallest, innermost ring at the center. There is one aqua-blue colored ring just inside a pale, shell-white ring, which is the first to get cropped by the edges of the canvas. A few red, green, and blue rings beyond the white band are only seen at the corners of the canvas.
Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 2015.19.144

In this painting, Alma Thomas imagines how a field of pansies might look from the window of an airplane. Thomas loved nature and often found inspiration for her colorful, patterned paintings in her own garden. Thomas shared her love of art with many students: she was an art teacher in Washington, DC, public schools for over 35 years.

Upper Level, Gallery 407

Katharina Fritsch, Hahn / Cock

Katharina Fritsch, Hahn / Cock, 2013, painted glass fiber-reinforced polyester resin on stainless steel armature, 2020.23.1

This bright blue, 14-foot rooster captures attention from any angle. Its title—hahn—is German for rooster or cock, and the artist considers it a playful poke at male vanity. From its perch on the roof of the museum, the sculpture overlooks a city full of monuments and memorials dedicated to famous men.

Tower Level, Roof Terrace

Sculpture Garden Must-Sees

Wander through this 6.1-acre oasis in the heart of the city. It's a peaceful setting for large-scale works of modern sculpture.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996, cast 1997, bronze with silver nitrate patina, 1997.136.1

The spider reminded Bourgeois of her mother, who died when the artist was a young woman. She had been a weaver and restorer of tapestries. While spiders frighten or disgust many people, Bourgeois saw them as clever and protective.

Sculpture Garden

Robert Indiana, AMOR

Four deep, three-dimensional letters spell out the word AMOR in this free-standing sculpture, with the A and M stacked on top of the O and R to create a square on a low black platform. The letters are coral red with butter-yellow undersides. The elongated, oval-shaped opening within the circular letter O is angled 45 degrees, toward the M at the upper right. We stand slightly to the left in this photograph so we can see the deep sides of the letters. The sculpture is displayed out-of-doors with trees and a tall black fence in the background and plantings around the base.
Robert Indiana, AMOR, conceived 1998, fabricated 2006, polychrome aluminum, 2012.27.1

Amor—love in Spanish and Italian— was a continuing theme for painter and sculptor Robert Indiana. His distinctive "LOVE" sculptures, with their slanted Os, have appeared in public spaces around the world. In 1973, the design was featured on a US postage stamp. It became associated with the Vietnam War-era peace movement.

Sculpture Garden