• Context's America's Collection, the National Gallery of Art walking seminar
  • Context's America's Collection, the National Gallery of Art walking seminar

Walk Description

Created with a gift from the financier and art collector, Andrew W. Mellon, the National Gallery of Art opened its doors in 1941 as a museum devoted to the people of the United States of America. Mr. Mellon believed that the nation deserved its own collection, open and free to the public. His gift financed the construction of the original (West) building, as well as the paintings and sculpture that formed the basis of the exceptional collection the Gallery boasts today. This three-hour tour of the National Gallery explores the collections of the West Building in the company of an art historian. We will learn about some of the the Gallery’s most prized and adored works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Jan van Eyck and JMW Turner, as well as uncovering hidden gems along the way.

We begin our time together at the base of the steps of the West Building facing the National Mall with a discussion of the founding of the Gallery and an examination of the building itself to help situate us. Inside, we will turn our attention to the topic of philanthropy and the arts in the early 20th century with the Founders Room and portraits of the Gallery’s earliest benefactors as our visual textbook. We will discuss the early vision of these generous individuals- a vision to bring the United States a collection with the prominence of other national collections such as the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London.

As we move through the galleries of the West Building, we will experience the National Gallery’s earliest masterworks – the Italian 13th- and 14th-century works up through much of its 19th-century collections of American art. We will have the chance to explore everything from Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings – exquisite still-lifes, stunning portraits, and remarkable landscapes – to visceral scenes created by American Realists of the 19th century – boxing rings and gritty urban settings. Using these works as our visual textbook, we'll learn about the development of the major genres of western art, such as portraiture, still-life, and landscape. We will also delve into the national art schools, allowing for a solid, yet broad, look at the how they engage with one another, but also developed with relation to local causes and values.

The new sculpture galleries- vaulted rooms with large windows allowing plenty of natural light- will illuminate our transition from the two-dimensional world of painting to these three-dimensional treasures. Here we will examine art from the Middle Ages through the early twentieth century, works ranging from sculpture to decorative arts of the Renaissance and eighteenth-century France, Italian Renaissance medals and plaquettes, and Chinese porcelains.

By the end of our time together we will have seen some of the most outstanding works in the history of western art – works cited again and again as the pinnacles of beauty and craftsmanship. We will also have a greater understanding of the goals of creating a collection for the nation and how that collection has evolved in the 70 years of the Gallery’s history.


Duration: 3 hours
Category: Art
Venues: National Gallery
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    Renee Gondek

    Renee recently received her Ph.D. from the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. Although her research primarily focuses on the images of women and nuptial practices in the Archaic and Classical Greek world, she has taught very broadly at the college level. Not only has she given lectures on Impressionism, but Renee has taught courses like “Art History 102” (Renaissance to the 21st century) and has a special interest in the Italian Baroque art (particularly the works of Caravaggio and his followers).

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    leslie urena

    Leslie is a native New Yorker, who holds an MA and PhD in Art History from Northwestern University, where she wrote her dissertation on the American photographer Lewis Hine. She has worked in curatorial departments in museums in New Haven, Dallas, and New York, curated exhibitions in Beijing and Taipei, and held fellowships in Washington, DC. While working as an independent curator, Leslie writes for Artforum.com, and will be teaching at George Washington University.

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    Victoria Tillson

    Victoria Tillson earned her B.A. in the History of Art from The Johns Hopkins University (2001) and her A.M. and Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University (2009). She began working for Context Travel in 2001 when it was formerly Scala Reale. She is excited to share her love for her native city, Washington, DC as a docent there. Since 2005, Victoria taught for 5 years as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and two summers as a faculty member of Middlebury College’s Italian School. She then joined Elon University’s Department of Foreign Languages as an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Italian in 2010. She now operates an Independent Educational Consultancy in the Washington, D.C. area, while maintaining her research interests in modern art and architecture, international politics, Rome, and 20th century Italian literature and cinema. Victoria has published several articles and has presented papers at over 20 national and international conferences on topics ranging from Dante’s conception of love to Mussolini’s vision for Rome.

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    Abram Fox

    A native of the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Abram Fox earned his Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland in 2014 with a dissertation on 18th century transatlantic artistic exchange, with a focus on the workshop of Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. He also holds a M.A. in art history, and double B.A. degrees in history and art history, also from the University of Maryland. An intellectual explorer, his research interests include instructional and museum pedagogy, the aesthetics of comic books and video games, and representations of sport and gender in contemporary popular culture. Abram presently serves as the Vice President of the Laurel Historical Society, and is in the midst of designing the institution’s upcoming exhibition which examines the relationship between local and national mass media coverage of events in the greater Washington, D.C. region.