National Geographic : 1952 Jan
Your National Gallery of Art After 10 Years BY JOHN WALKER Chief Curator, National Gallery of Art AMERICANS by nature are hopeful. Dur ing the darkest days of the Civil War the rebuilding of the National Capitol continued; and it is under the shadow of another struggle for survival that the National Gallery of Art has reached its tenth anni versary. Though danger menaces today, the Gal lery continues to grow, just as all over the country new churches, new hospitals, new schools, and new museums are being built. These are our affirmations that we have not lost faith in the ultimate victory of humane and Christian values. Art can strengthen our faith in these values. A serviceman who came to the Gallery during the war wrote in the visitors' book: ''Through an understanding of what this building holds, our lives will have more meaning." A consciousness of the importance of art in human life persuaded the late Mr. Andrew W. Mellon to provide the resources to build the Gallery and induces Congress each year to appropriate funds for its maintenance.* Great and Growing Treasury of Art Originally the collection consisted of only 111 paintings and 22 pieces of sculpture, but these works of art acquired by Mr. Mellon were among the greatest masterpieces in the world. The building on Constitution Avenue was designed to provide five and a half acres of exhibition space. Naturally Mr. Mellon planned for a greater density of works of art than 24 to the acre! He had faith that the beauty of the new building would have a magnetic effect on masterpieces in other col lections. He was right. Before the Gallery opened, Mr. Samuel H. Kress gave his large group of Italian paintings and sculpture, trebling the size of the original donation. His gift, so significant to the Gallery intrinsically and also because of its opportune timing, has been increased on several occasions by mag nificent additions not only of Italian art but also of other schools. The Widener Collection, one of the finest ever formed in America, was the next dona tion. Later Mr. Chester Dale sent the Gal lery many of his distinguished and brilliantly chosen paintings, principally of the French 19th-century school; and Mr. Lessing J. Rosenwald assembled for the print depart ment a superlative collection, a donation which has steadily grown. Others have given until the paintings and sculpture alone in the permanent collection now number more than ten times the original 133 objects. Thus in a decade, to quote Emily Genauer, art critic of the New York Herald Tribune, the National Gallery of Art "came into pos session of a collection which ranks it among the top three or four museums in the world." And of this collection the National Gallery has purchased only two paintings, both American, and both bought with funds donated for this purpose by a private indi vidual. All the other works of art have been given. Probably nowhere but in America could this have happened. Collecting here has not been the same as elsewhere. None of the principal donors to the Gallery bought works of art with the intention of leaving them to his heirs; and, even more remarkable, all made their donations while still able to enjoy their works of art. The greatest collectors in America have looked upon their treasures as being in temporary custody, destined from the beginning for public benefit. Taxation seems to have ended the era of great private collections. It is of immense significance, therefore, that the Samuel H. Kress Foundation has assumed the responsi bility individuals find almost impossible to undertake-that of buying works of art for public museums. Through an -imaginative and carefully conceived plan, the Foundation intends to extend the benefits of art to regional galleries throughout different sections of the country. The basic aim of this unique philanthropy has been stated by Mr. Rush H. Kress f as the development through art of "a deeper spiritual character on the part of our coming genera tions." Newly Acquired Paintings Reproduced During the last five years the Kress Foun dation has acquired many of the outstanding masterpieces still available. More than 130 examples of painting and sculpture and some 1,300 medals, plaquettes, and small bronzes all from these acquisitions of the last few years - have recently been shown at the National Gallery of Art in honor of its tenth anniver sary (page 75). A selection from this exhibi tion is reproduced to accompany this article (pages 77-100). * See "Old Masters in a New National Gallery," by Ruth Q. McBride, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1940. t Brother of Samuel H. Kress and vice president of the Foundation.