When we think of great national art museums, we usually think of palatial old buildings, some of which literally were palaces at one time, and collections of art that may literally have come with the premises. Florence, Rome, Madrid, London, St. Petersburg, and Paris all have such museums of such prominence they need not even be named. We've even got a couple museums in this country of similar stature, which are almost as old. However, one of our most important museums, this year, celebrates only sixty years of existence. Yet, in that time, it has amassed a broadly comprehensive collection of rare and valuable art covering more than 700 years of man's creative endeavours that is the envy of its sister museums in many of the great capitals of Europe. Some of it, in fact, came at their expense. It's axiomatic that great art follows great wealth, and in fact, may be especially fond of new wealth. By the same token, it's not particularly fond of political strife, war, and social unrest. All of which has worked to the advantage of Washington, DC's National Gallery of Art (NGA).
The museum was founded in 1937; the building on the nation's capital mall opened four years later, in 1941, just weeks before Pearl Harbour and the start of WW II. It might have seemed then to have been a rather poorly timed opening but, in fact, compared to the great art capitals of the world, Washington, DC was an island of peace and tranquillity in an otherwise tortured world of political, social, and military upheavals. The new museum was the beneficiary of 75 years' accumulation of great American wealth following the Civil War, at a time when it was still possible to buy on the open market major works by classical artists such as Raphael, Leonardo, Castagno, Botticelli, Perugino, Mantegna, Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, and others for prices that today would border on art theft. Families with names such as Kress, Rockefeller, Dale, Mellon, Rosenwald, and others were "rescuing" great art from the great Renaissance palaces, museums, and private collections of Europe, before those countries awoke to the realisation that some of their greatest art treasures were being siphoned off at an alarming rate by these upstart American millionaires.
I first visited Washington's National Gallery in the summer of 1968. The museum had just acquired its first (and only) painting by Leonardo, his Ginevra de' Benci considered a precursor to the Mona Lisa. Although it seemed to me at the time to be a rather tight, pale, austere piece of work, I was impressed by the fact the gallery presented it in such a way that the viewer could see its highly decorated obverse side. I was still in the Air Force at the time, my interest in art neither highly developed nor discerning of the great names in the history of art that would cause me today to gape in awe. I recall being tremendously impressed by Dali's Last Supper, by El Greco's Laocoon, and the work of such familiar American names as Gilbert Stuart and James McNeill Whistler. I also recognised works by Rembrandt and van Gogh. As a mark of my art innocence at the time, works by Cézanne, Ingres, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Vermeer, Dürer, and an embarrassingly long list of others meant nothing to me. I gave little notice to Botticelli's The Adoration of the Magi (1481), Raphael's Alba Madonna (1509), Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1660), or Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques (1905).
As great museums go, the National Gallery's collection is not huge; it is impressive for its quality and breadth, rather than in its overall numbers. Surprisingly, its collection of American art is not all that great. Only about 10% of its works are by native artists. There are more than twice that by French artists and a still greater number by Italian painters, reflecting two things: first, a taste for foreign-born art over the home grown variety amongst wealthy, turn of the century American collectors (whose donations have formed the museum's core) and second, the bargain basement prices at which such European antiquities could be acquired a hundred years ago.
Unlike other major national galleries, the NGA is blessed to be housed in a still state-of-the-art building designed by museum architect John Russell Pope, rather than in some draughty old palace forcibly adapted to the purpose of preserving great art. It is a classical, yet timeless, building, as notable for its lack of windows and for its graceful, shallow dome as for its immense, acreage of off-white marble sheathing. It's an art building with the expected "wings" yet, surprisingly, one that has always had them, and one that has never suffered the indignity of stylistically clashing annexes. Like many great museums of the world, it's a place where it's easy to get lost (as I've done both times I've been there) but, then again, it's also a museum where getting lost in the building also means getting lost in the art within it. And when that happens, doing so is no great loss.