DC Explorer: Treasures of the National Gallery

Monet – Parliament in London at National Gallery DC

With over 150,000 works of art, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art houses one of finest art collections is in the world, including Renaissance master works by Raphael to Botticelli and the only Da Vinci in the Americas. The collection also includes hundreds of American masters and an extensive collection of Impresionists like Monet and Van Gogh, as well as modern art.

The National Gallery is America’s art gallery – a collection for the people…the museum is free of charge to ensure all Americans and art lovers from around the world can connect through art. The arts are a universal language of human connection – a beautiful painting can speak deeply to the soul in any language.

Located on The National Mall on the corners of 6th and Constiution (across from the Air and Space Museum – mall side and National Archives – street side) – The National Gallery is housed in two stunning architectural buildings, that are connected via an underground concourse.

  • The West Building was completed in 1941 and houses art from the Renaissance to the Impressionism movement. Designed by famed architect John Russell Pope, the original ‘West’ building is hands down one of the most beautiful museums I’ve visited. The museum with its extensive pink Tennessee marble, soaring ceilings and hidden alcoves against the lush garden rotundas makes you feel as though you stepped into another dimension. The architecture is part of the artistic mission of the museum, but in all the grandeur of the marble and intricate details in this marvel of stone and marble – the building still remains humbly a servant to the art on display. Each room is carefully designed to highlight the art from Degas scuplture of ‘The Dancer’ to the soaring landscapes of Thomas Cole…the museum is alive if you will.
    • The West Building was designed by John Russell Pope, a famed architect who also designed The Jefferson Memorial and National Archives Building. Learn more about Pope here.
  • The East Building houses the museums collection of modern art from Matisse to Calder. Opened to the public on June 1, 1978, the museum was designed by Chinese American architect I.M. Pei. Starkly different in style to the West Building’s classical design – I.M. Pei tackled the challenge of harmonizing his modern vision with the original Pope structure with triumph. His impressive work on the East Building helped pave the way for his most famous commission – The Louvre in Paris. Click here for an architectural tour of The East Building

When planning your trip to The National Gallery it is important to recognize the size and scale of the museum. With thousands of pieces of art stretching across two buildings and an extensive scupture garden – you will need at least one full day at The National Gallery to get a glimpse of most of the artwork.

My mother and I spend six hours in the museum during our first day in DC (in the West Building) and thought we’d seen everything – only to find out we’d missed an entire wing of Degas, Cezanne, Gaughin, Monet and more…

On my recent trip I returned to the National Gallery three times to ensure I saw all the art:

  • If you only have one day – be prepared with a plan.
    • It can be helpful to break up your visit with a half day focused on one collection then return the next day to complete the West Building
    • I visited the West Building for two days straight and then returned for a quick visit on Day 3 to see the East Building collection
  • The National Gallery has one of the best websites I’ve found for in depth information about their collections and where to find the art in their galleries. If you have a favorite artist, take time to do a search on their website and make a list of the paintings you definitely want to see and their location – so you don’t miss out while at the museum
    • Curators and staff can help with questions on site as well
  • Remember this is not a rat race, take your time – enjoy the art…Savor the moment.
  • Special exhibits make require same day ticket queues – be prepared to ‘wait’ for exhibits. The staff works hard to ensure you get a chance to see the special exhibits – be patient.
  • There are several restaurants and snack areas in the galleries – take a breather with a cup of coffee and a pastry – or a sandwich…

Collection Highlights – The West Building

If you regularly follow American Nomad – you are aware that I’m an art lover. I plan pilgrimmages to art galleries and love to spend hours meandering through art museums studying Greek-Roman art to modern masters. I am a painter focusing in the acrylic medium and find inspiration from studying painters like Cezanne and Monet.

Entering the National Gallery I felt as though I’d been given the keys to eternal bliss. It was also a bit overwhelming because I didn’t want to miss anything!

We started on the ground floor, touring the sculpture rooms where the workds of Gaudens, Degas, Rodin and more can be found.

Degas is one of my favorite artists given his mastery as a sculptor and a painter. His works are found in both the sculpture galleries as well as the Impressionism wing at The National Gallery

The Sculpture Wings is connected to an exquisite collection of American decorative arts and paintings from 17th-18th century furniture from the US.

The Ground Level also includes a wind of Medieval to Renaissance paintings and sculptures including several of my favorite works:

Rembrandt – Windmills

After a coffee stop at The Garden Cafe (which also has sandwiches and pastries), we headed upstairs to The Main Floor galleries, which span thousands of works of art from the High Italian Renaissance to American Art to European Collections and more.

Each gallery spoke to my artistic soul as I enjoyed studying the use of colors and light. The themes of religious art and the story of salvation are told with depth and spirtual clarity.

Italian Galleries feature renowned works by Botticelli, Raphael and the only Da Vinci in the Americas.

Leonardo da Vinci –  Ginevra de’ Benci

I learned that the Leonardo was a portrait of a young wife, Ginevra de’Benci. It is remarkable as at is one of the first Renaissance portraits painted of a woman with an outdoor background (versus interior backdrop). The National Gallery purchased it from the Kingdom of Lichenstein…at one point the portriat included her hands, but was cut off.  

In addition to the extensive permanent medieval collection, The National Gallery also featured a wonderful exhibit on Venetian master Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio while we were visiting. This free exhibit featured master paintings. Click here to learn more.

The galleries continue to traverse through masterworks of time from the Netherlandish school of light and dark to famed American master painters including John Singleton Copley to Peale and Sully…Thomas Moran, Bierstadt, Church and more…

Thomas Moran – Grand Canyon

Impressionism in motion…The National Gallery is a wonderland for lovers of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh to Monet, Morisot, Seurat, Cezanne, Degas and so much more.

I could spend days simply sitting and staring into the tapestry of vibrant scenes. Cezanne is one of my favorite painters – so much so I named my cat after the artist (she is a sweet orange tabby)

Seeing paintings by your favorite artists up close seems surreal in the moment. I had to pinch myself.


It took two days to get in, but I finally got my chance to see The Vermeer paintings up close. The exhibit ‘Vermeer’s Secrets’ – details the hidden world of validating a Vermeer and his delicate and unique brushwork as a painter.

Their are only thirty-five known Vermeer paintings in the world…The National Gallery owns several…this exhibit actually details how forgery led to many famous art museums to mis-catalogue forged Vermeer’s as valid and the science of validating a true Vermeer based on dating of paint, infrared tech and more. To learn more click here.

Girl with a Red Hat by Vermeer

The East Building:

I spent an entire morning exploring the NGA’s East Building designed by I.M. Pei – the architecture is filled with light and provides ample space for this well rounded modern art collection, which features pieces from post-Impressionism movements like Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso and more.

Matisse is one of my favorite artists – I love his use of shapes and color to create vibrant scenes that are not constricted by artistic norms. I first fell in love with Matisse during an exhibit at the NCMA in Raleigh in High School…

The modern art collection also features pieces by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Calder and more…

One of my favorite pieces in the modern collection was a Raoul Dufy – love his sense of color and motion


We’ll continue our DC Adventures next at The Phillip’s Collection…

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