It was on this day in 1941 that the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C. The National Gallery was the project of Andrew Mellon, a wealthy industrialist and Secretary of the Treasury. In 1880, 25-year-old Mellon traveled to Europe with his friend Henry Clay Frick, a fellow Pittsburgh businessman who would go on to become another of the nation’s richest industrialists. This was the first trip abroad for them both, and they came back enthusiastic art collectors.
Mellon bought pieces slowly over the decades. In the late 1920s, he served as ambassador to Great Britain, and he was inspired by the National Gallery in London to create something similar in the United States. In 1930, he had the rare opportunity to purchase art from the Hermitage, the greatest art museum 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.
In 1936, Mellon wrote to President Roosevelt offering to donate his collection, as well as $15 million to build a museum that would house it. Mellon had a vision for a national museum of the highest quality, and he insisted that it should not be named after him, figuring that other art collectors would be more likely to donate to a place called the National Gallery of Art than the Mellon Gallery. His strategy worked, and he managed to talk many other prominent collectors into donating their art.
Mellon chose the architect John Russell Pope to design the new building. Pope designed it in the Neoclassical style, with wings extending from a central rotunda, and incorporating gardens and fountains. It was built with pink marble from Tennessee and polished limestone from Alabama and Indiana. The details of each gallery matched the culture and era — dark wood paneling for the 17th-century Dutch work, elaborate moldings and plaster walls for the Italian Renaissance, etc.
Construction began in June of 1937. Neither Andrew Mellon nor John Russell Pope lived to see it completed — they died within 24 hours of each other in late August. The building was finished at the end of 1940, and the next few months were spent installing art. Mellon had given 126 paintings and 26 sculptures, and hundreds of other works had already come in from other donors. At the time of its opening, many galleries were empty, because Mellon wanted a space that could grow substantially as more art was given. His vision went even beyond the building — he asked Congress to set aside an adjacent piece of land so that another building could be constructed some day. Sure enough, by 1966 the original building was full, and construction began on a second building — this one geometric and modern to house the modern art collection.
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.”
Admission is always free to the public. More than 4.5 million people visit the National Gallery each year to view its 120,000 pieces of art.