6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20565
In Advise and Consent:
“The first wave is here, tramping with weary tenacity through the Smithsonian and the zoo, paying their hasty camera-clicking tributes to Abe Lincoln in his temple (“Stand over there by his right foot, Kit,”), allowing half an hour for a quick run through the National Gallery of Art, hurrying one another along in a pushing, shoving, exclaiming line through Mount Vernon, the White House, and Lee House in Arlington, peeking in quickly at the massive red-draped chamber of the Supreme Court, viewing with suitable awe the blood-stained relics of the FBI, ascending the Washington Monument for a glimpse, all too brief, of the city, the river, the surrounding countryside, all the monuments and buildings, the great scheme of L’Enfant laid out before them with its broad avenues, its carpeting of treetops everywhere, its veneer of world capital still not effacing a certain gracious, comfortable, small-town aspect that not all the problems nor all the tourists in Christendom can quite obscure.” Page i708
Allen Drury’s tourists in Advise and Consent, scheduled half an hour for touring the National Gallery of Art – and that sounded a little skimpy but I decided to follow their lead. I looked at it closely and figured out the East Building of the National Art Gallery – designed by architect I. M. Pei – was added in 1970. I scratched that because Allen Drury’s tourists wouldn’t have had to deal with it. Then I learned the Sculpture Garden was built in 1999. It’s not that I didn’t want to see those things – it’s just that with those two off the table, I was pretty sure I could breeze through the gallery in half an hour.
Even that little bit of a tour would be more tour than the creator and the designer of the National Gallery of Art ever got. It’s kind of a sad story. Andrew Mellon gave The National Gallery of Art to America. He came from a wealthy family, made even more money and served as the U.S. Treasurer for nine years – starting in 1921. He had an idea the United States needed an art museum to compete on the world stage and in 1935 he hired an architect – John Russel Pope to design it. Pope also designed the Jefferson Memorial. Mellon wrote to President Roosevelt about it – and in March of 1937, Congress established the National Gallery of Art by accepting Mellon’s gift of the art to start it and the money to build it. In the Spring of 1937, the job of building the gallery got underway. And just five months later in August, both men died within 24 hours of each other. A few years later the museum opened its doors.
We sailed through those doors on a spring day and found the museum looking good. We zipped through the rooms tracking the art through time. We lingered at our favorites – the Impressionists – and enjoying a little Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the Post Impressionists like Paul Cezanne. Mellon, it’s said, wanted art that met three measures. It had to be one of the artists great works, it had to be a work of great beauty and it had to be well preserved. On our quick run though I could see the museum seems to be sticking to that plan.