National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Images)
When visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, it’s hard to believe it is only 69 years old. Its majestic appearance and rich collections suggest a museum many centuries in age. How could all these artistic treasures be assembled so late in history? Who had the vision to suggest that the United States finally have a national collection for the people such as those in nearly all European countries?
National Gallery of Art West Side in the 1940s (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Images)
In fact, hard as it is to believe, much of the success of the National Gallery of Art is due to the generosity of one man: Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon was a successful financier before serving as the Secretary of the Treasury from 1921-1932 and U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1932-1933. He began collecting art, mostly old master painters and sculpture, during World War l. By the late 1920s he had developed a vision that would become the National Gallery of Art, a collection of the world’s greatest works of art for the benefit of its citizens. However, while he continued to add to his extraordinary collection, his plans for the museum and the donations he would make that would assure its construction were kept secret.
Andrew Mellon (Image Courtesy of National Gallery of Art)
In 1930, with the world firmly in the grip of the Depression, Mellon seized on one of the greatest buying opportunities in the history of collecting: a series of purchases from Russia’s greatest museum, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a once in a lifetime event driven by orders from Soviet Premier Stalin to museum officials to raise cash by selling art. This despicable decision by Stalin was received with shock by museum officials, but fear of the repercussions outweighed any alternative. In the course of a year Mellon purchased 21 paintings, the likes of which would never have been available but for these extraordinary circumstances, including Raphael’s Alba Madonna and Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation. It was the coup of Mellon’s collecting career.
The Opening Ceremony at the National Gallery of Art presided by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Image Courtesy of National Gallery of Art)
In 1936 Mellon wrote President Roosevelt and formally offered to build the National Gallery of Art building and donate his collection to the nation. Ultimately 121 paintings and 21 pieces of sculpture from Mellon’s collection were gifted. Not only did he provide $15 million to build the building, but he also stipulated that it would not bear his name. This was not only an extraordinary act of selflessness but also a strategically wise decision because Mellon knew he had to enlist the support of his peers to also promise their respective collections to the National Gallery of Art. Putting his name on the building was something he understood would make that task difficult if not impossible. By excluding his name from the building Mellon was empowered to persuade others, including Samuel H. Kress, Chester Dale, and Joseph P. Widener, to donate or commit their collections to the nation. In the coming years these great collectors and many others made gifts of collections and funds, a tradition that continues to this day.
Leonardo da Vinci, "Ginevra de Benci", 1476, Oil on Wood, 38.8 cm × 36.7 cm (15.3 in × 14.4 in) (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Images)
Mellon also established a trust, donating $10 million, to fund the Gallery during those early years. This was just the beginning of almost a century of philanthropy by the Mellon family as Mellon’s son, Paul, and daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, continued their father’s support with generous financial donations as well as works of art. In fact, the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in an American collection, Ginevra de’ Benci, is at the National Gallery of Art, made possible by the Ailsa Mellon Bruce fund.
Robert M. Edsel speaking at The National Gallery of Art in January 2010. (Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection)
The National Gallery of Art is one of our nation’s greatest cultural centers and is full of visitors every day of the year but for the two it is closed. The facilities are state of the art and beautiful to admire. Anyone wanting to see one of the world’s great collections of art need not travel further than Washington, D.C. For those seeking a great example of selfless giving, study Andrew Mellon and his role in making this once lofty vision a reality.