Friday, 8 November 2013

Washington, National Gallery of Art

A National Gallery of America.

West Building, NGA.

NGA, Satellite View.
When the Founding Fathers sat down to consider where the capitol of the American Republic should be, they discarded the idea of calling existing cities such as New York and Philadelphia the capital of America. Instead, they opted for a completely fresh location which would not be tarnished with any royalist and colonial associations.[1] In 1791 the Founding Fathers chose the site of a “new Rome” and within two hundred years this swamp of land with mosquitoes would evolve into the most powerful city on earth.  And as with any great city, architecture played its part too though Washington D.C. is a complex patchwork of greatly varied styles. Where the National Gallery of Art (NGA) is concerned, the architect John Russell Pope designed the original neo-classical West Building (1941) which is linked underground to the East Building (1978), built by I.E. Pei in 1978. There is also a sculpture garden which took 30 years in the planning and completion and features both figurative and abstract sculpture. The West Building contains art from the medieval period to the 19th century and the East Building houses modern and contemporary art. Thanks to generous funding from the U.S. government, the museum is free of charge to visitors. It is a later museum than the ones previously considered since it was opened to the public in 1937 and was inaugurated in 1941. The maintenance and upkeep of the building is the responsibility of the Federal Government, but art acquisition is supported by the private sector. Thanks to this successful collaboration the NGA has comprehensive collections of art spanning the 14th to the 21st centuries. It almost certainly boasts the best collection of Italian renaissance art in the U.S.A.

Andrew Mellon, Philanthropist.

Andrew Mellon, unknown photographer

Raphael, Alba Madonna, oil on panel transferred to canvas, 94.5 cm,  Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.
Andrew Mellon from Pittsburgh was a financial prodigy who after setting up his own company joined his father’s bank in 1880, and two years later was owner of the bank transferred to him. A man of energy, vision and financial nous, Mellon easily became one of the wealthiest persons living in the United States.  He eventually rose to be Secretary of Treasury in 1921 and set in train plans for coping with the debt caused by World War I before his professional career ended in some ignominy before he died in 1937. In addition to establishing the NGA, his other philanthropic achievements include the Carnegie Mellon University, and he held the posts of president and trustee of the University of Pittsburgh to which he donated $43 million. The NGA’s old master collection originates with Andrew Mellon, who in addition to having an impressive collection of art, desired to build a gallery for the nation inspired by the National Gallery in London. The Gallery was authorized in 1937 by Congress, and it opened to the public in 1941 after Mellon’s death with an inaugural address by President Roosevelt. The aim of NGA was to be self-governing; not under the control of Washington’s other major museum the Smithsonian which then took the name “National Collection of Fine Arts.” It cost about $25 for Mellon to build his collection which has been valued at $40 m. Mellon had nearly 400 old master works comprising important examples from all the major schools of art, but in 1930 he formed a trust and this body purchased from the Hermitage 21 paintings including high-quality works by Raphael, Titian and Van Eyck. Mellon’s collection is mainly Italian and ranges from the Byzantine to the mid-19th century; it features such incomparable masterpieces as Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation and Raphael’s Alba Madonna which was loaned to the London NG for a major Raphael show in 2004.[2]
Samuel H. Kress, Philanthropist. 

Samuel H. Kress, unknown photographer.

 Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-10, oil on panel, 90.8 x 110.5 cm,  Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939
Between 1927 and 1960, the self-made millionaire Samuel H. Kress built an outstanding collection of Old Masters which became one of the best in the world. Kress’s five and dime store chain was simply the start of a massive business empire that gave him the wherewithal to collect art, primarily Italian in the 1920s when Kress was in his 60s. Unlike other collections like the Frick and the Gardener Museum, the whole of Samuel Kress’s collection has never been shown in one place; it is a dispersed collection of over 3,000 works among many states of territories under the rubric the “Samuel H. Kress Collection.”[3] The NGA is only one of 90 museums which own works from the collection. A true philanthropist, Kress wanted to share his art with the public and so during the Great Depression, a series of paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries travelled across America by train with the aim of fostering a “more cultured understanding of art.” It is hardly surprising that Kress became one of the principal benefactors of the NGA because of his public spirited ethos. Praising the donors in his NGA inaugural speech in 1941, President Roosevelt stressed that they understood that “great works of art have a way of breaking out of private ownership into public use.” Kress expressed his regret that Andrew Mellon had not lived to see his dream realised and he said that he shared the same ideals, “a National Gallery shared by all the people of our country [containing] only the finest works of art.” His own collection Kress said was formed “to provide for the study and enjoyment of the people, as complete a representation as possible of the Italian School of painting and sculpture of quality.”[4] This is the largest collection in the museum, and as the NGA states, the Kress holdings provide “an encyclopaedic assemblage of Italian paintings dating from the 14th century to the 18th century.” It is nirvana for scholars of Italian art, though the Kress collection also includes examples of Spanish, French, German and Flemish painting. Notable Kress pictures include Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds, Dürer’s Madonna and Child and too many examples of renaissance art to mention.

Other Patrons. 

Giovanni Bellini, The Feast of the Gods, about 1518, oil on canvas, 170.2 x 188 cm, Widener Collection,1942.

Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, Oil on canvas, 186 x 247 cm, 1862, oil on canvas, 187.4 x 248.2 cm, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.
Apart from Mellon’s and Kress paintings, the old master collection was reinforced by the addition of about 244 works owned by the Wideners, especially Joseph who had started buying old masters in the late nineteenth-century.  Their taste was Italian high renaissance, 17th century Dutch and Flemish and 18th and 19th century British art, e.g. Constable’s pastoral Wivenhoe Park. Amongst the gems of the Widener collection are Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance. Another significant collector was the banker ChesterDale (renaissance, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Sch of Paris). Highlights in the Dale Collection include Manet’s Old Musician and Picasso’s Familyof Saltimbanques, which combined with Watteau’s Italian Comedians from the Kress Collection have a common theme- groups on the margins of society. There are many other patrons and donors, such as Mellon’s children, Lessing J.Rosenwald a businessman, and Edgar Garbisch the football player who gave American art to the museum. Worth a look amongst the American holdings are Whistler’s ethereal Symphony in White and Rembrandt Peale’s meticulously observed Portraitof Rubens Peale with a Geranium, described by Robert Hughes as the “most genuinely neoclassical painting produced by any of the Peales.”[5]
The East Building. 

The East Building, NGA
These days even the most venerated museum may contain examples of modern art, and the Washington NGA is no exception to this rule. This rule is reflected in architecture since buildings housing modern art must conform to non-classical standards and convey a modernist aesthetic. Fittingly, the architect of the East Building is I.E. Pei who whilst at MIT rejected the Beaux Arts style in favour of the modernism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Pei famously was the first foreign architect to re-design the Louvre installing a famous glass and steel pyramid at its entrance. For the East Building Pei also thought in terms of geometry; it is a trapezoid divided into an isosceles triangle and a smaller triangle. 

Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross, East Building, NGA
In 2011, an $85 m renovation took place due to structural damage detected in 2005; more funding for renovation has been earmarked for 2013. The East configuration is home to modern and contemporary art. Artists include Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, Liechtenstein, Calder and amongst others a 1977 mural by Robert Motherwell. Barnett Newman’s 14 Stations of the Cross should also be mentioned. View this clip of Robert Hughes on abstract art, with a curt dismissal of Newman's religious pretensions, (link, about 2 mins in). 

The East Building is also a huge administrative hub comprising the offices of the gallery, CASVA (Centre for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts). After the Getty Research Institute, the NGA is one of the most important visual arts research centres in the U.S.A. which started with the Mellon Lecture program attracting leading art historians Like Anthony Blunt, Kenneth Clark, E.H. Gombrich, H. W.Janson and Arthur Danto. A volume, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: FiftyYears was published in 2002.


1)      West Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

2)      Satellite View of NGA.

3)      View of West Building from National Mall. 

4)      Photograph of Andrew W. Melon.

5)      View of an Exhibition in the West Building.

6)      Duccio,  The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311, tempera on single panel, 48 x 87 cm,  Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.

7)      Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, oil on canvas transferred from panel, 90.2 x 34.1 cm,     Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.

8)      Detail: symbolism of Van Eyck on floor.

9)      Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra da Benci, 1474, oil on panel, 38.1 x 37 cm, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967

10)   Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-10, oil on panel, 90.8 x 110.5 cm,  Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939

11)   Giovanni Bellini, Feast of the Gods, oil on canvas, 170.2 x 188 cm, Widener Collection,     1942.

12)   Photo of Samuel H. Kress.

13)   Albrecht Dὕrer, Madonna and Child, 1496-99, oil on panel, 52.4 x 42.2 cm, Samuel H. Kress Collection,     1952.

14)   Raphael, Alba Madonna, oil on panel transferred to canvas, 94.5 cm,  Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.

15)   Raphael, The Garvagh Madonna, National Gallery, London, about 1509-10, oil on wood, 38.9 x 32.9 cm.

16)   Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555,    oil on canvas, 124.5 x 105.5 cm, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.

17)   Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Titian’s Schoolmaster”, c. 1575, oil on canvas, 96.8 x 74.3 cm, Widener Coll, 1942.

18)   Nicolas Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin, oil on canvas, 134.4 x 98.1 cm, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1963.

19)   Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalene, 1635-40, o il on canvas, 113 x 92.7 cm,    Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.

20)   Il Guercino, Self-Portrait before a Painting of "Amor Fedele", 1655, oil on canvas, 116 x 95.6 cm, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2005.

21)   Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-46, oil on canvas, 87.6 x 105.6 cm, Widener Collection, 1942).

22)   Vermeer, Woman with a Balance, oil on canvas, 39.7 x 35.5 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.

23)   Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, probably 1720, oil on canvas, 63.8 x 76.2 cm, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.

24)   Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, Oil on canvas, 186 x 247 cm, 1862, oil on canvas, 187.4 x 248.2 cm, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.

25)   Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, 212.8 x 229.6 cm, Chester Dale Collection, 963.

26)   Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, 1905, oil on canvas, 55.3 x 46 cm, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1998.

27)   Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801, oil on canvas, 71.4 x 61 cm, (Patrons Permanent Fund, 1985).

28)   Whistler, Symphony in White: No. 1 (The White Girl), oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm, Harris Whittemore Collection, 1943.

29)   Mary Cassatt, the Boating Party, 1893-1894, oil on canvas, 90 x 117.3 cm, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.

30)   Augustus John, Joseph Widener, 1921, oil on canvas, 124.7 x 102.3 cm, Widener Collection,  1942.

31)   John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, oil on canvas, 56.1 x 101.2 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.

32)   Exterior of East Building.

33)   Same showing geometric design.

34)   Interior of East Building showing Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, 1965-1966, acrylic on canvas, 198.2 x 152.5 cm, Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, 1986.

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions, 112.
[2] Raphael: From Urbino to Rome, LNG, Chapman, Henry and Plazzotta, exh. cat, 2004, no. 93.
[3] See Marilyn Perry, “Five and Dime for Millions: The Samuel H. Kress Collection” in The Samuel H. Kress Study Collection at the University of Missouri, ed. Norman E. Land, (Uni of Missouri Press, 1999), 3-12. Kress gave Missouri 14 paintings as a study collection including a Rembrandt. Link
[4] All quotations from Perry, 8.
[5] Hughes, American Visions, 106.

1 comment:

  1. " It is a later museum than the ones previously considered since it was opened to the public in 1937 and was inaugurated in 1941. The maintenance and upkeep of the building is the responsibility of the Federal Government, but art acquisition is supported by the private sector."

    That is interesting for two reasons. Firstly I cannot imagine a public museum or gallery in Australia that would depend on the private sector. Public museums and galleries would normally be considered protected from private interests. Yet clearly the arrangement works very well in the National Gallery of Art,

    Secondly 1937 would have been a terrible time for large, expensive projects to be completed. The Depression was still having its impact and the world was just about ready for the next catastrophic war to start. I am thinking of so many other projects, slated to open between 1930 and 1935, that were ditched :(