The oldest art museum in Washington D.C. the country’s elegant capital city is the Corcoran Gallery, founded by financier William Wilson Corcoran in 1869. Now part of the Smithsonian, its collection runs the gamut, from works by 19th-century greats like Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent to modern and contemporary artists such as Walker Evans, Man Ray, Edward Hopper and Jacob Lawrence.
The 1897 Ernest Flagg building in which the Corcoran is housed is actually its second home. Its first, a landmark Second Empire-style building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, now houses the Renwick Gallery, the nation’s premier collection of American craft objects and decorative arts. The Renwick is a branch of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, which shares space with the National Portrait Gallery in the historic 1836 Patent Office Building (called “the noblest of Washington buildings” by Walt Whitman).
With a new free-form glass roof enclosing its monumental 28,000-square-foot courtyard, the American Art Museum exhibits what started as the first federal art collection, begun in 1829. More than 40,000 works from three centuries of American history are on display, making it the largest collection of American art in the world.
The National Portrait Gallery is the only U.S. museum dedicated solely to portraiture, with 18,600 works ranging from paintings and sculpture to photographs, drawings and original artwork from more than 1,900 Time magazine covers. Highlights include political works—the famous ‘Lansdowne’ portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln—and pop-culture items, such as Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of Michael Jackson.
The National Building Museum is housed in the former home of the U.S. Pension Bureau, whose Renaissance-style Great Hall is among Washington’s most impressive spaces, with massive Corinthian columns supporting its 159-foot ceiling. No wonder it has been used as the site of 14 presidential inaugural balls.
Resembling a cylindrical tank, the Hirshhorn stands out among its Victorian and neoclassical neighbours. The museum had its birth as the private hobby of financier Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who began collecting modern art in 1918 and by the 1960s had accumulated holdings that spanned the breadth of modernism. Today, the circular galleries hold works by Picasso, Giacometti, de Kooning, Pollock, Warhol, Matisse, Rodin, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and hundreds of others.
Further afield from the National Mall, the small, intimate Phillips Collection was the country’s first modern art museum, opened by collector Duncan Phillips Jr. in a wing of his beautiful Dupont Circle home in 1921. Within ten years, his collection had grown to the point that his family was forced to move out. The place remains homelike, with works displayed in carpeted, oak-panelled galleries.
Last but certainly not least, the National Gallery of Art was a gift to the nation from former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, who donated both the money for its construction and his personal art collection as its nucleus. The European and American painting and sculpture is among the world’s finest, spanning from the 13th and 18th centuries (respectively) through to the early 20th.
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