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In 1764, while the American colonies were between the French and Indian War and the Stamp Act protests, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, started collecting art.
A Berlin art merchant had assembled a magnificent collection of paintings for Catherine’s nemesis Frederick II, King of Prussia. But thanks to Prussia’s wars with Russia, he couldn’t pay for it. Catherine bought it.
Over the years, Catherine would go on to acquire approximately 4,000 paintings, as well as enormous collections of gems, coins, and books, among other items.
To help house them, she first commissioned an extension to the Winter Palace, the official imperial residence in Saint Petersburg. Over the years, the art and the buildings proliferated and became the Hermitage Museum, which opened to the public in 1852 under Catherine’s grand-son Czar Nicholas I. The extraordinary complex and its magnificent collection stood as testament to the grandeur of Russia.
In 1917, communist revolutionaries under Vladimir Lenin overthrew the imperial government. The following year, they murdered Nicholas I’s grand-son Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children.
In 1922, Lenin and his comrades formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Two years later, Lenin died; Joseph Stalin became political leader of the Soviet Union, and Saint Petersburg became Leningrad.
In 1928, Stalin launched his first five-year plan. His goal was a centrally planned economy based on the collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization. Since collectivism and central planning can’t possibly create the wealth needed to support industrialization, the Soviet government needed money.
So it sold off about 250 paintings from the Hermitage Museum.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon bought 21 of them, including:
- Botticelli‘s The Adoration of the Magi
- van Eyck‘s The Annunciation
- Raphael’s Saint George and the Dragon
- Rembrandt’s A Polish Nobleman
They were at the heart of a collection of 152 paintings and sculptures that Mellon would donate to form the National Gallery of Art.
In 1936, Mellon wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offerring to contribute his art collection as well as the funds necessary to build a museum to house them.
To create the new building, Mellon selected John Russell Pope, who had also designed the beautiful National Archives building and Jefferson Memorial. For the National Gallery of Art, the American architect designed a neoclassical building of pink Tennessee marble. Sadly, both Mellon and Pope would die within 24 hours of each other in 1937, never seeing their vision come to fruition.
The National Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1941. Over the years, many generous donors have followed Mellon’s lead and given priceless works of art to the museum.
It has become the most visited art museum in America. I’ve been many times — with new friends during college orientation, when I needed inspiration for my job across Constitution Avenue as a speechwriter to the Secretary of Labor, and just this weekend with the D.C. History and Culture group.
By the late 1960s, the collection was outgrowing the original building. Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, responsible for the Louvre pyramid in Paris, designed a modern building, also of pink Tennessee marble. It is known as the East Building and houses the more contemporary works. The original structure is now called the West Building, and it displays the more classical works. An underground Concourse connects the two Buildings.
It will surprise regular readers not at all that I prefer the West Building with its Rembrandts and Van Goghs over the East with its Picassos and Lichtensteins, but a friend and I did sneak away years ago from a conference to see a special exhibition of paintings by Frederic Remington in the East Building, and I loved it. It always pays to explore beyond your norm.
In 1999, the Gallery opened its outdoor Sculpture Garden, which features modern works amid the same pink Tennessee marble. It also has a seasonal Ice Rink.
The collection today encompasses more than 150,000 items, primarily Western works from the Middle Ages forward.
The Gallery’s crown jewel is Ginevra de’ Benci, the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci on display in America. The Gallery acquired the 15th-century painting in 1967 from Prince Franz Josef II of Liechtenstein. It is one of Leonardo’s earliest works and is similar in many ways to his later Mona Lisa (on display at the Louvre), with the subject presented in the then-innovative three-quarter pose.
Ginevra was the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent banker in Florence. She wrote poetry and was known for her intellectual cleverness.
The painting exudes emotion. Ginevra’s porcelain skin glows. Juniper leaves frame her face. Their use is both a pun on her name and a reference to her chastity. Their spikiness recalls Jesus’s crown of thorns.
Nothing is known of Ginevra’s mother; her father died in 1474, shortly before her betrothal to Luigi Niccolini, a widower twice her age, from a family of silk merchants. The portrait was likely commissioned to commemorate the betrothal. The sorrow in her face may reflect mourning for her father, or for herself, as she faces the chattel status of a Renaissance wife, a dim future for a bright teenager.
(note: As of this writing, the southern Renaissance galleries are closed for renovation; Ginevra de’ Benci is temporarily on display in the Dutch and Flemish gallery 39 on the main floor of the West Building. While it’s disappointing that other Italian Renaissance works are unavailable for viewing, the portrait’s placement among northern works offers a wonderful opportunity to see the commonalities and differences in the styles up close.)
The Gallery displays many other magnificent works, and has especially marvelous collections of American, Dutch, and French Art. Just a few of its notable works include:
- Manet‘s The Old Musician
- Van Gogh’s Roses
- Monet‘s Woman with a Parasol
- Savage‘s The Washington Family
What to Know before You Go to the National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall along Constitution Avenue between 3rd and 9th Streets NW, near the U.S. Capitol building.
The closest Metro stop is Archives on the Yellow and Green lines.
The NGA has no public parking facility, though there is a small lot for cars with handicapped plates or placards. There are also pricey garages and limited street parking nearby.
Admission to the Gallery is free of charge. There are lots of complimentary one-hour tours. The tours are excellent; I once joined three in a single day. Docents will guide you in looking at different works and help you place them in context, find and understand details, and see the evolution within a single artist’s oeuvre and across art movements. Docents have a lot of leeway in how to focus their tours, so you could take the same tour more than once and have a new experience every time.
There are three shops. Along with the usual books, jewelry, note cards, and so on, you may purchase custom prints of the paintings in the Gallery. I am writing this to you while sitting under a print of Jean-Honoré Fragonard‘s A Young Girl Reading, which my late parents bought during one of their visits.
There are also four pricey cafés serving light bites like pastries and pizza, and a fabulous Gelato Bar in the Concourse.
If you’re in the mood for bar bites after a day of exploring the Gallery, I recommend Charlie Palmer Steak at First Street and Constitution Avenue; it’s where my former boss used to take the speechwriting staff to unwind after stressful afternoons.
Michelin restaurants within half a mile include:
Wear city-appropriate clothes and comfortable shoes; the floors are hard wood and marble tile, beautiful to look at but rough on the feet, back, and joints. There are complimentary coat-rooms at the entrances.
Tourist season in Washington is from mid-March, just before the cherry blossoms bloom, until early September, just after the schools reopen; the Gallery can be quite crowded during this time period. It’s quieter during September-March. The Gallery does not welcome school groups on Wednesdays, making it my preferred day to visit.
Allow two to six hours.
Excellent hotels within walking distance include:
I fell in love with travel on a trip to Mexico when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve travelled the globe from Israel to El Salvador. I’ve skied the Swiss Alps and hiked national parks like Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, and Virgin Islands. I’ve marvelled at masterpieces in the Prado, the Uffizi, the Huntington, and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve stayed in a cabin on a mountaintop in Norway and on a kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and been kicked out of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme. I’ve taken cooking classes from New England to the Caribbean, and watched a chef prepare traditional shakshuka in the kitchen of his restaurant in Tel Aviv. I weave historical research and my personal experiences together in writing this blog. I hope you find it helpful. Read more …