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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

A Walk Through the National Art Gallery

The National Gallery of Art was one of many attractions in Washington, D.C. that I circled early on as something I really wanted to see. I didn’t know what was there – any of the artists who have works on display – but instinctively assumed it would be good. But I was wrong. It wasn’t good. It was great, beyond what I could have imagined. And like so many things I saw in Washington, D.C., I wish I had more time to explore its halls.


Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein

The National Gallery of Art is split into two buildings – appropriately named East Building and West Building – which are connected by an underground tunnel, cafeteria, and gift shop. I started my day in the East Building, since I wanted to continue on, assuming I had the time, to see two Smithsonian Museums west of the West Building and the National Sculpture Garden, which I’ll talk more about below.

The doors just opened on the East Building when I arrived. Based on the architectural design of the building, I assumed the East Building would be more about modern and contemporary art. And I was right. The museum’s open spaces, angular appearance, and atmosphere are all about some of the best contemporary and modern art I’ve seen. Anywhere.

I started my tour on the Mezzanine Level, which is used for special exhibitions. A Roy Lichtenstein retrospective was currently on display, but these exhibitions change frequently so plan ahead if there’s something you really want to see. Through the course of wandering through the halls of Lichtenstein’s work, I ended up on the Upper Level. Here I admired several works by Pablo Picasso:

Picasso's Pedro Manach, 1901

Picasso’s Pedro Manach, 1901

Picasso's Harlequin Musician, 1924

Picasso’s Harlequin Musician, 1924

Picasso's Dora Maar, 1941

Picasso’s Dora Maar, 1941

Surprise and excitement hardly describes what I felt at this point. I had no idea such works were in the National Gallery of Art. And my elation didn’t stop there, as I continued back down through the Mezzanine Level to the basement, otherwise known as the Concourse.

The bulk of the East Building’s collection is housed in the Concourse. Sure, a lot is also in the Upper Level, like all of the Picasso’s, but the other two levels – the Mezzanine and Ground – are essentially wasted open space. I appreciate the atmosphere they help create, and the option for special exhibitions, but I was disappointed the floors weren’t filled in so more of the collection, or other special exhibitions, could be on display.

Wandering through the Concourse, which is really one large room partitioned into several smaller ones, my joy over the artists who are on display increased. Some of my favorites were downstairs, which was much to my amazement; I did very little research before heading to the museum, as I said, because I wanted to be surprised by what I saw. And it certainly worked.

Here were stunning works by the likes of Matisse, Clyfford Still, Pollock, Warhol, and more…

Matisse's Cut-Outs

Matisse’s Cut-Outs

Clyfford Still in the East Building Concourse

Clyfford Still in the East Building Concourse

Pollock's Number 1, 1950

Pollock’s Number 1, 1950

Warhol's Green Marilyn, 1962

Warhol’s Green Marilyn, 1962

The day was getting away from me by this point, and there was still a lot I wanted to see, so I rushed through the rooms on the Concourse Level if nothing immediately caught my eye. After heading through the tunnel, I stopped for a quick lunch, before heading upstairs to the top of the West Building. Just as I did with the East, I figured the best course of action would be to attack it from the top down. But boy was I wrong.

The tunnel connecting the National Gallery of Art buildings

The tunnel connecting the National Gallery of Art buildings


I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer size of not only the collection, but the physical size of the West Building. The place was huge. And without a good idea of where the highlights were located, or at least my favorite artists, there would be no way I could see the whole museum in a day. I came to this realization when I stumbled into Room 66 and saw Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial, 1900

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, 1900

I knew this work, as I’m sure many other people do, from the closing credits of the movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and more. But what I saw in the movie, and what I saw in person, were two totally different things. Or at least they were in my mind. Based on the movie, I assumed the sculpture to be a small thing they zoomed in upon. Not so. The Shaw Memorial is massive, filling up a whole wall in the large room.

The West Building's rotunda

The West Building’s rotunda

Resigned to the fact that to see the museum in totality would take at least two days, if not more, to do it any sort of justice, I decided to head to the information desk. I needed help. There was just too much to see, and I needed to get any idea of what was where so I could see my favorite artists and some of the highlights from other eras.

With the museum’s highlights circled on my map, the attendant set me free to explore the museum. Well, at least the part that I’d be able to do in the few hours I had available. Not to rush it anymore, though, I paused in the building’s magnificent rotunda. Yeah, I know, with all of the great works of art around me, I stopped to look at the rotunda. But that’s something I love about Washington, D.C. – the grand architecture with rotundas in so many of the buildings. That doesn’t happen too often out west.

A map of the National Gallery of Art's West Building

A map of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building

Continuing west through the building, I wandered into the Dutch and Flemish galleries. Here, in Room 39, is where I’d find Rembrandt’s The Mill:

Rembrandt's The Mill, 1645, is in Gallery 48

Rembrandt’s The Mill, 1645, is in Gallery 48

I continued through other nearby galleries, like those containing Netherlandish and German art, but was pulled to the north side of the building. Everything I wanted to see was there, in several rooms stretching the length of the building. So in haste, I departed for the Italian, French, and Spanish galleries. More specifically, I scurried over for the chance to see Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, which was briefly on loan:

Michelangelo's David-Apollo was on loan

Michelangelo’s David-Apollo was on loan

Other very notable artists and works were also on display:

Botticelli's Madonna and Child, 1470

Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, 1470

Bellini's Portrait ofa  Young Man, 1490

Bellini’s Portrait ofa Young Man, 1490

Raphael's The Ncicolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508

Raphael’s The Ncicolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508

And then I came to it, the one and only Leonardo da Vinci on display in the United States, Ginevra de’ Benci:

The front of da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci, 1474, in Gallery 6

The front of da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, 1474, in Gallery 6

The back of da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci, 1474, in Gallery 6

The back of da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, 1474, in Gallery 6

I stood in the hall, admiring the small paining from every which angle I could imagine, for what must have felt like forever to the guards who eyed me. They starred me down so intently they must have thought I was going to try something. In truth, I was in such awe by what I was seeing – a da Vinci only moments after a Michelangelo. My art geek could not have been going any stronger.

While I probably could have spent a day completely content with looking at the two works, I decided to continue on to see some other favorites:

Cezanne's Cheaeau Noir, 1900

Cezanne’s Cheaeau Noir, 1900

Degas' Before the Ballet,1890

Degas’ Before the Ballet,1890

Monet's Japanese Footbridge, 1899

Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, 1899

Renoir's Oarsman at Chatou, 1879

Renoir’s Oarsman at Chatou, 1879

Van Gogh's The Olive Orchard, 1889

Van Gogh’s The Olive Orchard, 1889

Piccaso's Le Gournet, 1901; Family of Saltimbanques, 1905; Madame Picasso, 1923

Piccaso’s Le Gournet, 1901; Family of Saltimbanques, 1905; Madame Picasso, 1923

The day was late, and I had only touched the surface of what there was on display in the West Building’s upper level. I couldn’t sacrifice any more time, though, with all there was yet to see on the ground floor – all of the sculptures downstairs – as well as outside in the National Sculpture Garden. So without further delay, now back on the east side of the West Building, I shot downstairs and hurried through the rooms toward the exit.

Rodin's The Thinker, 1840

Rodin’s The Thinker, 1840

I paused here and there to admire works which caught my eye or were by a name I recognized, like Rodin. But as it stands, smaller sculptures rarely interest me. Instead I prefer the larger ones, pieces so big they can’t comfortably fit inside a museum. So I quickly worked my way through the galleries and out.


I had passed the National Sculpture Garden, which is sandwiched between the National Art Gallery’s West Building and the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of Natural History, during my stay in Washington, D.C. But as I was in a hurry to go somewhere else, I hadn’t taken the time to stop. With all there is to do in town, it’s easy to overlook something like the garden, which is cut off from the rest of the mall by tall hedges and trees. That is what makes it so special, though – it’s seclusion.

The National Sculpture Garden

The National Sculpture Garden

I paused in the garden, lounging on a bench or near the ice rink, to reflect on the day and all that I had seen. Not only did I lay eyes on a da Vinci and a Michelangelo, only rooms apart, but I also saw the likes of Rodin, Picasso, van Gogh, and so much more. And now I was in one of what I quickly understood to be one of the best kept secrets in Washington, D.C., the National Sculpture Garden.

Sure, there were other people playing about on the grass or skating in the rink, but it was virtually deserted. With so many other great attractions so close at hand, visitors and locals alike quitted to them while ignoring the garden, even on a beautiful day such as I enjoyed. I wasn’t complaining about the quiet in the least, either; that’s what made it so special. Cars drove by, people were bustling about on the sidewalk or in the National Mall, but in the garden it was peace and relaxation. Tranquility, almost.

The ice skating rink in the National Sculpture Garden in front of the National Archives

The ice skating rink in the National Sculpture Garden in front of the National Archives

I left the National Art Gallery and the National Sculpture Garden too soon. My day was busy. I had a lot planned beyond the museums. Too much. And in hindsight I know that. But with so much to see and do in Washington, D.C., I wanted to squeeze in as much as I could. And even though I may have missed out on a moment or a piece here and there, I’m still happy I pushed and jammed as much as I could in such a short period of time, since, I think, even if you live in the city it’s possible to truly spend enough time at any one of the monuments, museums, or other amazing attractions around town.

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One Comment on “A Walk Through the National Art Gallery”

  1. The Guy April 30, 2013 at 1:40 am #

    What an enviable collection. You’ve really highlighted Jason that there is so much to see in Washington.

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