National Gallery of Art Opens

U.S. #3910g – From the Modern American Architecture sheet.

On March 17, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt presided over the opening of the National Gallery of Art.

Andrew Mellon made his fortune in oil, steel, shipbuilding, and construction, becoming one of the wealthiest people in America. During World War I, Mellon used his wealth to build a private art collection of old master paintings and sculptures. Appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1921, he moved to Washington, D.C., and soon realized that America should have a national art museum like the ones in other great nations.

U.S. #1072 – Mellon’s initial gift to the museum included 126 paintings and 26 sculptures.

After years of adding to his collection and planning, Mellon wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 to formally offer his collection and the funds necessary to build the gallery. President Roosevelt supported his idea and promoted it to Congress. On Mellon’s birthday, March 24, 1937, Congress accepted his proposal, officially establishing the gallery.

Mellon selected architect John Russell Pope to design the museum on the site of the former Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C.  (Interestingly, this was the spot where Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield in 1881). Mellon insisted that the gallery not bear his name, to encourage others to donate their art collections. And several did, both before it was completed and in the years since. Unfortunately, neither Mellon nor Pope would live to see the completed gallery, as both men died within a day of each other in August 1937, just two months after excavation began.

U.S. #1284 – President Roosevelt delivered a stirring speech at the museum’s dedication.

Once construction was completed in December 1940, the National Gallery of Art was the largest marble structure in the world at the time. Three months later, on March 17, 1941, the gallery officially opened to the public, with over 8,000 people in attendance. Andrew Mellon’s son, Paul Mellon, presented the museum to the nation on his father’s behalf, with President Roosevelt accepting it.

U.S. #1276 – Since 1965, U.S. Christmas stamps have pictured works from the National Gallery of Art.

In his speech, President Roosevelt said, “though there have been many public gifts of art in the past, the gift of this National Gallery, dedicated to the entire Nation, containing a considerable part of the most important work brought to this country from the continent of Europe, has necessarily a new significance. I think it signifies a relation – a new relation here made visible in paint and in stone – between the whole people of this country, and the old inherited tradition of the arts. And we shall remember that these halls of beauty, the conception of a great American architect, John Russell Pope, combine the classicism of the past with the convenience of today.” Click here to read the full text of President Roosevelt’s speech. Or listen to it here.

U.S. #1433 – John Sloane’s work was displayed in the gallery in 1971.

When Mellon first planned the gallery, he knew it would one day outgrow its home. With this in mind, he requested that Congress set aside a nearby plot of land for future development. As he foresaw, the gallery reached its capacity in the 1960s. His children then offered the funds for the construction of a second building and hired architect I.M. Pei to design it. Construction began in 1971 was but progressed slowly due to the complexity of the design. After it was completed, President Jimmy Carter dedicated the new gallery on June 1, 1978. In 1999, the gallery opened its third section, the Art Sculpture Garden.

U.S. #3872 –Martin Johnson Heade’s work was displayed in the gallery for three months in 2000.

Today, the gallery houses almost 4,000 paintings, 3,000 sculptures, 70,000 prints, 31,000 drawings, and 15,000 photographs, in addition to decorative arts. It’s also the only museum in America to house a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

Several U.S. Christmas stamps feature art that hangs in the National Gallery. You can view them here.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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    1. it was Mellon and his family’s money to with as they please. I and most other Americans appreciate his gifts. You need to get out of your double-wide and get some culture, But that is asking a lot from a red neck

    2. “Big Al,” have you ever visited a museum of any kind?

      What do you waste your money on?

      Just checking.

        1. It’s obvious he has no concept of waste. A gift of an entire art gallery and a substantial fortune in art, is hardly a waste. Only an unsofisticated huffoon would make such a comment. His idea of art is probably the inside of a toilet stall at a boxing match. Also, since stamps are all about the art as well as history he’s clearly on the wrong website since he’s too stupid to be a collector.

  1. I guess we must share the wealth of history and art but to me March 17th will always be St. Patrick’s Day except if your are from Boston where they also celebrate Evacuation Day, when Washington’s ragtag Army chased the British out of Boston Harbor. Enjoy your artsy day!

  2. Mr Adkins you wouldn’t be reading this if there were people like u who cared nothing about history. I am proud to live in a country where as u say the 1 percenters will use their fortunes for the common good

  3. What an interesting article, I was not aware of Mellon’s contributions to the establishment of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I am appreciative of Mellon’s efforts to build and house a national museum which symbolizes the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the country. The National Gallery, like all Smithsonian museums are important national landmarks that offer everyone free of charge to experience great artistic, historical, and cultural treasures. No amount of money could ever be wasted on enriching a child’s life through the humanities and education.

  4. And I love the art work and history in every one of those tiny stamps. That is something even the 99% gets to enjoy. I love the museums but there is beauty in our everyday life. Don’t look at the big picture…look at the parts and pieces.

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