Little Bits of History

National Gallery of Art

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 17, 2015
West Building of the National Gallery of Art

West Building of the National Gallery of Art shortly after construction

March 17, 1941: The National Gallery of Art is officially accepted by Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of the American people. Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon was an art collector who began amassing a collection of old masters (paintings and sculpture) during World War I. By the 1920s, he decided to establish a new national gallery for the US using his collection to start. In 1930, he formed the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust to be the legal owner of works intended for the new gallery. They soon made their first acquisition when they purchased 21 paintings from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

In 1929, Mellon first contacted Charles Greeley Abbot, the newly appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Two years later, Abbot was appointed a Commissioner of the Institution’s National Gallery of Art. When the director of the Gallery retired, Mellon requested Abbot not be given the position as Mellon wanted Abbot to run the new organization he was forming. Mellon was charged with tax evasion because of his Trust and the Hermitage paintings and so his strategy needed to change. In 1935 Mellon announced in the Washington Star, he intended to establish a new gallery for the old masters, separate from the Smithsonian.

The project was in the hands of the Trust and was dependant on the “the attitude of the Government towards the gift”. In January of 1937, Mellon formally offered to create a new Gallery and on his birthday, March 24, 1937, Congress accepted the collection and the funds for construction of the Gallery. The Smithsonian gallery was renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts and the new building would become the National Gallery of Art. John Russell Pope (who also designed the Jefferson Memorial) was the architect for the new structure, accepted on this day. Neither Mellon nor Pope lived to see the building, as they both died in 1937.

Today, the National Gallery of Art is ranked second nationally and eighth globally and has over 4 million visitors a year. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the other American museum with more visitors. The most visited art museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris. The State Hermitage Museum is ranked 15th. Earl A Powell III is the director of the National Gallery of Art located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The collection is comprised of paintings, drawing, prints, photographs, sculpture, medals, and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present. They have the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas there. As their collection grew, more space was needed and an East Building was designed by IM Pei as was the 6.1-acre Sculpture Garden.

‘Art’ is the same word as ‘artifice,’ that is to say, something deceitful. It must succeed in giving the impression of nature by false means. – Edgar Degas

Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask. – Robert Motherwell

I find relatively little relationship between the work of art and the immediate critical response it gets. – Edward Albee

To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art does not live in the present, it must not be considered at all. – Pablo Picasso

Also on this day: Wearing of the Green – In 493 or 461, St. Patrick died.
Golda – In 1969, Golda Meir became the Prime Minister of Israel.
Rubber Bands – In 1845, rubber bands were first patented.
Air Force One – Not – In 1957, a plane crashed in the Philippines.
Not Very Utopian – In 1891, the SS Utopia sunk.


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