March 17, 1941: National Gallery of Art opens in Washington, D.C.

·Christy Karras

If Americans want to see a Leonardo da Vinci painting in person without leaving the country, they’ll head to the National Gallery of Art, a grand stone building amid the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Always meant as a public museum for the American people, the gallery was originally funded by private donations. Banking magnate Andrew W. Mellon was the force behind its creation, donating both his vast art collection and money for construction.

Although the gallery sits next to Smithsonian Institution museums, it’s not one of them. Mellon originally intended it to be, but just as he was gathering the funds and artworks into a trust to create the museum, the U.S. government put him on trial for tax evasion. Mellon and his supporters believed President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the lawsuit because he hated the tycoon for embodying excessive wealth (Mellon was eventually found not guilty).

Angry that the government would sue him just as he was preparing to hand it a major donation, Mellon rebuffed the government-backed Smithsonian and declared that the National Gallery would be independent. (The Smithsonian Institution would go on to create the Smithsonian American Art Museum a couple blocks away.) Although the National Gallery now operates as a joint public-private partnership, it’s still not part of the Smithsonian.

When it was finished, the monumental neoclassical building was the largest marble structure anywhere in the world. Somewhat ironically, FDR accepted the museum on behalf of the American people on March 17, 1941 — Mellon had died shortly after construction began in 1937. The collection focuses on Western art, including Old Master paintings that wealthy Americans bought up and later added to Mellon’s original collection. By the 1970s, the modern art collection was big enough to require a new wing, which opened in 1978.

Like the other museums on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art is free and open to the public.