Created with a gift from the financier and art collector, Andrew W. Mellon, the National Gallery of Art opened its doors in 1941 as a museum devoted to the people of the United States of America. Mr. Mellon believed that the nation deserved its own collection, open and free to the public. His gift financed the construction of the original (West) building, as well as the paintings and sculpture that formed the basis of the exceptional collection the Gallery boasts today. This three-hour tour of the National Gallery explores the collections of the West Building in the company of an art historian. We will learn about some of the the Gallery’s most prized and adored works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Jan van Eyck and JMW Turner, as well as uncovering hidden gems along the way.
We begin our time together at the base of the steps of the West Building facing the National Mall with a discussion of the founding of the Gallery and an examination of the building itself to help situate us. Inside, we will turn our attention to the topic of philanthropy and the arts in the early 20th century with the Founders Room and portraits of the Gallery’s earliest benefactors as our visual textbook. We will discuss the early vision of these generous individuals- a vision to bring the United States a collection with the prominence of other national collections such as the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London.
As we move through the galleries of the West Building, we will experience the National Gallery’s earliest masterworks – the Italian 13th- and 14th-century works up through much of its 19th-century collections of American art. We will have the chance to explore everything from Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings – exquisite still-lifes, stunning portraits, and remarkable landscapes – to visceral scenes created by American Realists of the 19th century – boxing rings and gritty urban settings. Using these works as our visual textbook, we'll learn about the development of the major genres of western art, such as portraiture, still-life, and landscape. We will also delve into the national art schools, allowing for a solid, yet broad, look at the how they engage with one another, but also developed with relation to local causes and values.
The new sculpture galleries- vaulted rooms with large windows allowing plenty of natural light- will illuminate our transition from the two-dimensional world of painting to these three-dimensional treasures. Here we will examine art from the Middle Ages through the early twentieth century, works ranging from sculpture to decorative arts of the Renaissance and eighteenth-century France, Italian Renaissance medals and plaquettes, and Chinese porcelains.
By the end of our time together we will have seen some of the most outstanding works in the history of western art – works cited again and again as the pinnacles of beauty and craftsmanship. We will also have a greater understanding of the goals of creating a collection for the nation and how that collection has evolved in the 70 years of the Gallery’s history.