Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

National Gallery of Art, West Building


John Russell Pope, FAIA


Washington, DC








  Below- East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1974-78 (R:1968-78) (I. M. Pei)
  west front, photo 1982, M. Brack and view from southwest, photo, J. Nicholais (Drexel U.).
  balcony and ceiling, photo 1981, M. Brack.
  interior, looking up, photo, J. Nicholais (Drexel U.).
  view from southeast, photo, J. Nicholais (Drexel U.).

The West building of the National Gallery of Art designed by John Russell Pope, with the East Building designed by I.M. Pei and the U.S. Capitol visible behind and to to the left

The National Gallery of Art is an art museum, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum was established in 1937 by the Congress, with funds for construction and a substantial art collection donated by Andrew W. Mellon plus major art works donated by Lessing J. Rosenwald, Italian art contributions from Samuel H. Kress, and more than 2,000 sculptures, paintings, decorative art, and porcelains from Joseph E. Widener.

Beginning in the 1920s, financier and art collector Andrew W. Mellon began gathering a collection of old master paintings and sculptures with the intent of providing the country with a national art gallery. Following his death in 1937, Congress in a joint resolution accepted Mellon's collection and building funds (provided through the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust), and approved the construction of a museum on the National Mall.[1]

Designed by architect John Russell Pope (who would go on to design the Jefferson Memorial), the new structure was completed and accepted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of the American people on March 17, 1941. At the time of its inception it was the largest marble structure in the world. The museum stands on the former site of the Sixth Street railway station, most famous for being where 20th president James Garfield was shot in 1881 by a disgruntled office seeker.

As anticipated by Mellon, the creation of the National Gallery encouraged the donation of other substantial art collections by a number of private donors. Founding benefactors included such individuals as Paul Mellon, Samuel H. Kress, Rush H. Kress, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Chester Dale, Joseph Widener, Lessing J. Rosenwald, Edgar William, and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.

The Gallery's East Building was constructed in the 1970s on the much of the remaining land left over from the original congressional joint resolution utilizing funds from Mellon's children Paul Mellon and Alisa Mellon Bruce. Designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, the contemporary structure was completed in 1978, and was opened on June 1 of that year by President Jimmy Carter. The new building was built to house the Museum's collection of modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints, as well as study and research centers and offices. The design received a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1981.

The final addition to the complex is the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Completed and opened to the public on May 23, 1999, the location provides an outdoor setting for exhibiting a number of pieces from the Museum's contemporary sculpture collection.


The East Building of the Gallery

The museum comprises two buildings, the East Building and the West Building, that are linked by a spacious underground passage. Its design, by architect John Russell Pope, is neoclassical, with a gigantic columned portico and a massive dome reminiscent of the Pantheon (as is Pope's other notable Washington, D.C. building, the Jefferson Memorial), except for the West Building's symmetrically-attached extended wings. The design of the East Building by architect I.M. Pei is sharply geometrical, fragmented or faceted compared to the West Building's cool classicism; from above, the East Building appears as if made of interlocking prisms.

The West Building has an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by European masters from the medieval period through the late 19th century, as well as pre-20th century works by American artists. Highlights of the collection include many paintings by Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The East Building focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a collection including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder. The East Building also contains the main offices of the NGA and a large research facility, Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA).

To the west of the West Building, across Seventh Street, is the Sculpture Garden. The 6.1 acres (25,000 m²) of the garden are centered on a large circular fountain (an ice rink in the winter) surrounded by stone seating. The exhibited sculptures in the surrounding landscaped area include pieces by Joan Miro, Louise Bourgeois, and Hector Guimard.


The West Building Interior

The National Gallery of Art has one of the finest art collections in the world. It was created for the people of the United States of America by a joint resolution of Congress accepting the gift of financier, public servant, and art collector Andrew W. Mellon in 1937. European and American paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, and decorative arts are displayed in the collection galleries and Sculpture Garden.

The National Gallery of Art is supported through a private-public partnership. The United States federal government provides funds, through annual appropriations, to support the museum's operations and maintenance. All artwork, as well as special programs, are provided through private donations and funds. The museum is not formally part of the Smithsonian Institution, but it is one of the more than 90 cultural institutions in the United States that are Smithsonian "affiliate museums."

Noted directors of the National Gallery have included David Edward Finley, John Walker and J. Carter Brown. Earl A. Powell III is the current director.

Entry to both buildings of the National Gallery of Art is free of charge. From Monday through Saturday, the museum is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; it is open from 11 – 6 p.m. on Sundays. It is closed on December 25 and January 1.

The West Building of the National Gallery of Art soon after construction.

Centerpiece on the main floor of the West Building.
Photo: Marc Averette

Satellite image of the West (left) and East (right) Buildings of the National Gallery of Art. Please note that the perspective has been distorted due to the imaging process.

Ginevra de' Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most well known pieces in the collection.