When I was growing up, we celebrated Washington’s birthday on February 22nd. No longer a national holiday, we now observe Presidents’ Day on the 3rd Monday of February. This year, it will fall on Monday, February 18th. In addition to George Washington’s (February 22nd) and Abraham Lincoln’s (February 12th) birthdays, William Henry Harrison was born on February 9th and Ronald Reagan on February 6th. All in all, this makes February a rather patriotic month. We are a nation with problems, but also a nation with a rich heritage. One of the greatest treasures of America is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The National Gallery of Art was established in 1937 “for the people of the United States of America” by a joint resolution of Congress. It was the result of a large gift of art works from Andrew W. Mellon (1856-1937) who bequeathed his private collection to the United States. Andrew Mellon, Pittsburgh banker, industrialist and philanthropist, was Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932. Facing impeachment proceedings in 1932, he resigned and was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Mellon envisioned a national museum that would belong to the American people. He commissioned architect John Russell Pope to draw up plans for his venture. On March 17, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the completed buildings and collections of art “on behalf of the people of the United States of America.” The mission statement of the National Gallery is “to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art, at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.”
The private collection of Andrew Mellon forms the nucleus of the permanent holdings. His initial gift resulted in hundreds of donations from other collections. In 1931, Mellon purchased 21 paintings from the Soviet Hermitage, including Raphael’s Alba Madonna. In 1939, Samuel H. Kress and the Kress Foundation donated 375 Italian paintings and 18 sculptures. In 1942, Joseph Widener gave 600 works from his personal collection. And in 1949, Georgia O’Keefe donated 1,500 photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. Through generous philanthropy, the National Gallery continues to acquire works through gift and acquisition.
Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901-1969) was the daughter of Andrew Mellon. She continued in the Mellon tradition of art collection and philanthropy. Many of her art works and 18th-century furniture were donated during her lifetime to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. It was Ailsa Bruce who gave the grant for the construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She donated a collection of 153 paintings, impressionists and van Goghs to the National Gallery, and established a $10 million fund for future acquisitions. Perhaps the most significant acquisition came from Ailsa Mellon Bruce in 1967. The National Gallery purchased Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci from the Princely House of Liechtenstein for $5 million. It is the only work of Leonardo in the Americas, and we own it!
Ginevra de’ Benci was a 15th-century Florentine aristocrat. Although there is much speculation about her and the circumstances of the painting, no one disputes that it is Leonardo at his best. In fact, one could say it is Leonardo at his rebel best! Painted in the 1470’s during his apprentice period with Verrocchio, Ginevra is shown in a ¾ view, looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. This is a first in portrait painting and can perhaps be considered a bit brazen for the renaissance woman. But then, Ginevra appears to have “attitude” as she stares out of the painting in a haughty and dispassionate manner. The medium is oil on wood panel. The obverse side shows a juniper sprig with a wreath of laurel and palm. A ribbon is inscripted Virtutem forma decorat (beauty adorns virtue). Of course, varieties of plants have significant meanings in painting and these are no exception. But Ginevra is no wall-flower. She is an “in-your-face” type of girl, and Leonardo bests her neither with modesty nor humility.
The National Gallery has a wonderful website (www.nga.gov) on which you can lose yourself for hours. From the history of the museum to virtual tours to a gift shop that will turn the most thrifty into a shopaholic, we no longer have to travel to DC to enjoy our own museum. Take advantage of web site. After all, it belongs to you!