The National Gallery of Art
Did you know the National Gallery of Art was a gift to the U.S. from Andrew W. Mellon? In 1936 Mellon offered to both fund the National Gallery of Art and donate his personal collection to get it started. Mellon is the real MVP! Sadly, he died before the gallery opened.
When the NGA first opened in 1941, the collection consisted entirely of Mellon’s 126 paintings and 26 sculptures. Today the National Gallery of Art is home to some 124 thousand works by more than 13 thousand artists from the Renaissance to present day!
- Admission is FREE (good lookin’ out Mellon)!
- It’s open every day of the year except Christmas and New Years (and when the government shuts down).
- NGA has the only Leonardo Da Vinci painting, Ginevra de’Benci, in the whole Western Hemisphere.
- The largest mobile ever created by Alexander Calder is in the East Wing.
I know what you are thinking, that’s A LOT of art!
Don’t worry, whether you are a DC native, National Gallery of Art enthusiast, or touring DC for the weekend, Museum Hack’s renegade tours have you covered!
To help you plan your visit, we’ve included a FAQ and logistical information section below on this page – scroll down to check out the details, including dining options, parking, and what you can and can’t bring into the museum. You can even take a quick virtual tour in the “Things to See at the National Gallery of Art” section just below!
5 Things to See at the National Gallery of Art
Ginevra de' Benci by Leonardo da Vinci
This is the only da Vinci in the entire western hemisphere! If that’s not enough of a selling point for you, here are some fun facts to convince you why else it’s definitely worth seeing.
- It’s hella old – 540 years and counting.
- It has a front AND a back. That’s like having two Da Vinci’s in one.
- There’s a crest on the back.
- A close look at the seal on the back upper right corner tells the story of how our lady Ginevra came to the NGA (if you know how to read it). Curious? Here’s a hint: It involves Lichtenstein, a tea, and the FBI!
- The woman who posed for the painting is the one and only Ginevra de Benci. She was a poet. Only one line of her poetry has survived history. If you come on our tour, you’ll find out what it is!
The Portrait of Countess Ebba Sparre - Suspected Lover of a Queen
This woman was the intimate friend of Queen Christina of Sweden. Was she also her lesbian lover? We may never know. But there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that this may have been the case.
Here’s the scoop:
Queen Christina took the throne of Sweden in 1632, at the age of 18. One of her ladies in waiting was Ebba Larsdotter Sparre. Queen Christina quickly nicknamed Sparre “la belle Comtesse”, and spent all her spare time with Sparre. When out together, she often called attention to Sparre’s beauty. She introduced her to the English ambassador as her ‘bed-fellow’, assuring him that Sparre’s intellect was as striking as her body. After a few years, Sparre was married off to a man of Queen Christina’s choosing, and soon thereafter the Queen completely changed her lifestyle, found a new hobby and became a Catholic. That was rather a big deal at the time! Sweden = Lutheran = no Catholic Queen possible. Christina was forced to abdicate the throne because once you go Catholic you never go back.
Little Dancer by Degas
Degas only exhibited one sculpture in his entire life, and you’re looking at it!
When it was shown in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, everyone hated it (one critic said she looked like a monkey), so Degas hid it away and no one saw it again until after he died. When his heirs opened his studio, they found dozens of sculptures, including this one. They hired a foundry to reproduce each one once, but decided to make 28 copies of this one. So she’s everywhere: the Musee d’Orsay, the Met, MFA Boston… but this one here? This is the original!
- The tutus worn by the bronzes vary from museum to museum.
- If you look closely you can see human hair in her braid!
The East Wing
The East Wing is the modern and contemporary wing of the National Gallery of Art. You can get to it from the west building through an attached underground light tunnel. Once you arrive, you’ll be greeted by the last Calder in existence hanging from the ceiling.
When asked to give the piece a title, Calder replied, “You don’t name a baby until it is born.”
Unfortunately, he died one year before the finished mobile was hung, so he never witnessed the “birth” of his last major commission and it remains unnamed.
But there are plenty more to see! NGA boasts the world’s largest display of works by Alexander Calder (40+ works).
In the East Wing, you’ll also find artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko and a giant blue cock on the roof. Get your mind out of the gutter – it’s a rooster. We keep it classy here at the NGA.
The Sculpture Garden
If you’ve spent a day at the museum and find yourself needing some fresh air, check out the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden just next door!
This six-acre garden was designed as an outdoor gallery for monumental sculpture. Whether you’re into monumental sculpture or not, it’s a great place for a rest in the midst of the Mall. Pack a picnic, buy a pitcher of Sangria and relax in the sun. it’s a great way to kick off your weekend!
During the summer they put on a popular Jazz in the Garden concert series every Friday. In winter they turn the fountain into an ice rink. You can rent skates and try it out, or just grab a festive cocktail and sit on the sidelines.