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80th Anniversary of opening of Nat'l Gallery in Washington, DC

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC opened on March 17, 1941 -
with a seed collection from Andrew Mellon that he acquired from the Hermitage and several other European sources,
starting when he was serving as ambassador to Great Britain in the 1920s.

In 1930 Mellon had the rare opportunity to purchase art from the Hermitage in Russia. Stalin had ordered museum employees to raise money for the government by selling off valuable pieces. The sale was a secret, but the news was spread to select foreign collectors. Mellon purchased 21 paintings, including work by Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Titian, and Jan van Eyck.

Mellon donated the art and $15M to the Roosevelt Administration on the condition that they not name the museum after him, and model it on the National Gallery in London. He and the architect John Russell Pope both died before the building was completed.

When the National Gallery opened on this day in 1941 President Roosevelt gave the dedication speech. He said, "To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America — that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world's great art ... shall not be utterly destroyed."

Posted by
7566 posts

There was great inspiration with the National Gallery in London, and a wonderful result in D.C. Sone money out to really good use. And it’s just 80 today - a surprise. Thanks for the details avirosemail, and thanks to the generous donors!

Posted by
771 posts

Thanks for the info, Avirosemail, that was interesting to know. Who knew that the National Gallery had at its core artwork from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. (Of course, art historians know that.)

Posted by
2529 posts

I remember when the East building that houses the modern part of the collection opened in the summer of 1978, my family went to visit and when I saw the moving concourse and the cafeteria filled with noisy families and general hullabaloo,
I thought at the time that they had gone too far in trying to appeal to the general public - better to bring the people to church than the church to the people has always been my initial temperament.

That's been my reaction in the intervening decades to most new museum construction - I appreciated the Tate Modern opening in the old Battersea power station not least because it meant that the 'real' museum on the other side of the Thames, renamed Tate Britain, could stop trying to cater to the hoi polloi so much - let them have the Bankside.

This might open me to accusations of elitism. Maybe. :-)

Posted by
3240 posts

Haha, Avirosemail. I understand what you mean but I was on the other side of the spectrum from you. When I graduated from college in the mid-70's, I thought seriously of going into museum design as I thought the interior layout of the museums were horrible. LOL. I didn't, but they've come along, or not, depending on one's perspective. (And I, too, hate the Tate Modern.)

Thank you for this post, as it has reminded me I need to revisit this museum. This is handy because one of the smaller items left on my bucket list is to stay at the Williard Hotel. This might work quite well for one of my domestic trips while I wait to travel abroad again.

Posted by
2529 posts

Hey Wray -- that I didn't like a lot of the new museum construction and renovation over the last several decades doesn't mean that I don't think that a lot of museums could do with improvements, it means that I don't like treating museumgoers like consumers or customers rather than as citizens and curious members of the community/communities.
There are certainly successful 'modern' designs - I just want the underlying models to be civic rather than mercantile.

Posted by
2487 posts

My in-laws lived in Arlington, Va., and we made many visits there. One of the first things we would do, is go to the Smithsonian and, of course, the National Gallery of Art. There were always wonderful exhibits on, for example, the King Tut exhibit, Henri Matisse Cut-Outs exhibit and a fabulous exhibit from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. I will always remember my wonder at these paintings from the West that Russia owned! Seeing them planted a seed for wanting to see the Hermitage for myself someday. With luck, someday I will.
So it is interesting to read that Mellon purchased 21 paintings from the Hermitage, I didn’t know that.
Thanks for your post!

Posted by
6619 posts

I didn't know about the Hermitage connection either. Should we thank Mellon or Stalin? ;-)

It's often referred to as the Mellon Gallery even though that's not the official name. A wonderful museum, and I like the East Building too, just as I like Pei's Louvre pyramid.

When we lived on Capitol Hill about 30 years ago we would visit the National Gallery occasionally on weekends. I couldn't believe a short walk from home was a roomful of Rembrandts. And it was FREE!