The National Gallery of Art campus 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 museum features iconic paintings of the Founding generation, as well as fine collections from famous painters and sculptors like Rubens, Raphael, Monet, Van Gogh, and Rodin. No matter what your taste in art, you are sure to find something appealing, as the permanent and special exhibits cover everything from the realistic to the abstract.
The Gallery collection is housed in three separate, but adjacent, locations. From west to east:
This page covers the West 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 West and East 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.
The Gallery’s West Building has two floors – the main floor and ground floor. Designed by architect John Russell Pope, who also designed the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and National Archives building, this example of neoclassic architecture draws elements from the famous ancient Roman Pantheon. At the center of the main floor is the rotunda, a dome-topped open space encircled by a colonnade and covered by a coffered ceiling. The massive, stone fountain in the middle is topped by a bronze sculpture of Mercury, and softened by floral displays on a seasonal basis. Two long, symmetrical hallways radiate east and west from the center, with natural light pouring down from the hall-length skylights onto the marble and bronze sculptures on display below. The brightly lit corridors provide passage to exhibit rooms on their flanks designed with traffic flow in mind.
Each exhibit room on the main floor features a different time period and country of origin. For example, there are rooms dedicated to 13th through 16th century Italian art, 17th Century Dutch and Flemish art, and a section dedicated to American art from the Colonial period to early 1900s. Seating is available in many of the exhibit rooms where visitors can study and contemplate these masterpieces.
The ends of each corridor are punctuated by brightly lit Garden Courts, lush with greenery and stone fountains. Free concerts have been given in these courts since 1942. Check the schedule here.
The ground floor, though less architecturally grand, houses a large collection of sculpture from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, paintings, American furniture, decorative arts and more. It also contains the Garden Cafe, Gallery Shop, Lecture Hall and underground passage to the East Building.
Given the size of the art collection, visitors could easily spend a full day here, including stops for dining and shopping. The Garden Cafe on the ground floor of the West building offers upscale dining, and the Cascade Cafe in the East building offers traditional mid-priced choices. The large Gallery Shop has a wonderful selection of prints, books, cards, accessories, and home furnishings. Coat and bag checkrooms are available at the entrances. The Information Room has maps, brochures and a helpful staff. A Lecture Hall facilitates deeper discussions on artists and art history. See the calendar here.
The West building features European art from the 13th to the early 20th century; American art from the colonial period to the early 1900s; sculpture from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century; American furniture; decorative arts; and rotating exhibitions in a variety of media. Here is just a small sample of the museum’s permanent collection. Some of the artists are well-known in American culture, and others are lesser known but significantly tied to the history of Washington, DC.
Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt Van Rijn – Dutch painters of the Baroque period
Claude Monet and Édouard Manet – French Impressionist painters
Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas – French sculptors during the Impressionist era
Vincent van Gogh and Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec – post-Impressionist painters
Gilbert Stuart – one of the most prolific portrait painters of the Founding generation, the Gallery houses his portraits of the first five U.S. Presidents, First Ladies, and their associates
Samuel F.B. Morse – though best known for developing the single-wire telegraph and Morse code, he was also a well-known portrait painter. His detailed painting of called The House of Representatives, today’s National Statuary Hall, features eighty individuals working under low light in the Old Hall of the House. Placards are available in the gallery room to help identify the faces in the painting. You can visit the Hall if you take a public tour of the U.S. Capitol.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens – famous sculptor and Washington, DC resident, his striking Shaw Memorial dominates a gallery room and demands closer inspection. This patinated plaster version of the bronze original, located in Boston Common, commemorates the service of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, the first African-American regiment to serve in the Civil War. The monument is believed to be the inspiration for Kevin Jarre’s 1989 movie “Glory.”
Paul Manship – though not a well-known name in American culture, he sculpted the 17-foot statue of President Theodore Roosevelt on nearby Theodore Roosevelt Island. The ground floor contains a gallery with several of his smaller works.
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 opened in 1978 and the Sculpture Garden 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 West Building, check out the 2019 Summer Sunday Lecture Series:
Learn how you can donate or become a member