The National Gallery of Art hosts one of the most impressive art collections in the United States, if not the world. It is located on the north side of the National Mall in Washington, DC, just west of the U.S. Capitol. The Gallery campus features paintings, sculptures and other forms of art from the 13th Century to modern day. The West Building contains iconic paintings of the Founding generation, as well as fine collections from famous painters and sculptors like Rubens, Monet, Van Gogh, and Rodin. The East Building houses a fabulous collection of Modern and Contemporary Art from artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. No matter your taste in art, you are sure to find something pleasing and surprising.
The Gallery collection is housed in three separate, but adjacent, locations. From west to east:
This page covers the East building. Click the links above to find out more about the other locations. Admission into all three locations is free. There’s a passageway on the ground floor that connects the East and West buildings. Using it allows you to bypass a second security screening. The National Gallery of Art website covers all three locations.
To enter the museum you will go through a bag search. Be sure to read the guidelines here before you enter so that you’re not carrying anything inside that might get you turned away. There are bag and coat checkrooms at the entrances, but there are limits to what can be checked in. Common to art museums, there are special restrictions designed to prevent damage to the artwork. For instance, bags worn as backpacks are not permitted in the museum. You can either carry your bag with one strap across the front or drop it off at the checkroom. If you’re not comfortable leaving your valuables there, then plan accordingly. I normally carry my camera in a backpack, but when I visit a museum such as this, I throw the necessary gear into my front strapped tote bag and leave behind any equipment that I don’t need that day.
When Pierre L’Enfant designed the City of Washington, DC, he overlaid diagonal roads on top of the north-south, east-west grid pattern, thereby creating triangular and trapezoidal-shaped lots at their intersections. Fast forward a couple centuries when plans were being considered to build the National Gallery of Art East Building on one of these odd-shaped lots at Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues. A second building was needed house a learning center and to display the expanding collection of paintings and sculptures acquired by the Gallery. Architect I.M. Pei‘s challenge was to not only fit the building into this awkward space, but also connect it symmetrically and visually to the adjacent West Building. He solved the design challenge by cutting the space into two triangles, one for public exhibit space and the other for a center for art studies.
Both the interior and exterior are shaped with sharp angles, forming a simplistic modern structure in contrast to the classically designed West Building. The center atrium rises five floors with exhibit spaces on the sides in towers. Glass walls and ceilings allow light to brighten the massive atrium and its angular nooks. The geometric design and muted construction materials are visually broken by the well-placed, large-scale art installations on all floors. There’s something to see wherever you go. Floating overhead is a giant red and blue mobile by sculptor Alexander Calder, which hints at the playful artwork inside the exhibit spaces.
The five floors of the museum are arranged chronologically, with the older artworks beginning in 1890 on the lower floor and contemporary art on the top. The Concourse level has a large special exhibit space, and the top floor opens to a rooftop deck where unique pieces suited for outdoors can be enjoyed in view of the U.S. Capitol.
Given the size of the art collection, visitors could easily spend a full day here, including stops for dining and shopping. The Cascade Cafe and Terrace Cafe in the East Building offers traditional mid-priced choices. There’s a Gallery Shop, information desk, a coat and bag checkroom at the entrance, and an auditorium for lectures and performances. See the calendar here. There’s also space for special exhibitions. The library and center for art studies are located here, too. Find out more about doing research here.
The East building features Modern and Contemporary art from 1890 to modern day. The French and American art of the early 1900s gives way to the more abstract styles of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Surrealism. Some of the artists are well-known in American culture, while others are lesser known but of equal talent and importance. You may come away with some new favorites after visiting the Gallery. The vast collection ranges from realistic interpretations of life and landscape to whimsical, abstract plays on everyday subjects. Then there are the downright head-scratchers that remind you of a child’s preschool art projects leading you to the inevitable question “Why is that in a museum?” It’s amusing nonetheless!
Here’s just a sample of what you’ll find.
Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe – American 20th century artists
Pablo Picasso – Spanish 20th century artist
Amedeo Modigliani – Italian 20th century artist
Edouard Vuillard – French artist of the 19th and 20th centuries
Here are a few of the ways you can tour the museum.
The National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian Institute. Rather, its founding was a privately financed endeavor by investment banker Andrew W. Mellon. While living in Washington, DC as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921-1932, he decided that the United States needed a world-class art gallery to rival those in Europe. He donated his private art collection to form the core of the museum, along with funds to construct the West Building. Mellon chose John Russell Pope as the architect, and construction began in 1937. Both Mellon and Pope died that year, but the project continued according to their wishes. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered an address at the building’s dedication ceremony on March 17, 1941, and the building was opened to the public the next day.
As he had hoped, Mellon’s contribution attracted others to donate their collections. Five-and-dime store magnate Samuel Kress donated his private collection in time for the opening day. Other gifts include the Widener, Rosenwald and Dale collections, and incorporation of the Corcoran Gallery of Art collection beginning in 2015. Mellon’s children, Paul and Ailsa, not only donated their private art collections, but also financed the East Building after the West Building gallery space had filled to capacity.
The East Building, designed by architect I.M. Pei, opened on June 1, 1978. President Jimmy Carter gave the dedication speech. Pei is best known for designing the glass pyramid at the Louvre museum in Paris. The East Building was later renovated to add more gallery space, including the rooftop terrace, and reopened in 2016.
The Sculpture Garden was followed in 1999. The National Gallery of Art’s diverse collection of art styles, eras and artists is a reflection of the tastes of the individuals who contributed their collections to the museum. You can learn more about the history here.
The National Gallery of Art is not only a place to view art, but also a place to study it. The Gallery hosts regular lectures and gallery talks, has a research library, a center for art studies, and a vast collection of digitized artworks online. Many of the lectures and clips are available in audio and video format. See what’s available here or subscribe to the National Gallery of Art YouTube Channel here for videos.
Every work of art, its artist, and its acquisition into the National Gallery of Art collection has a story behind it. If you want to know more about the permanent collection in the East Building, check out this series:
Learn how you can donate or become a member