The history of the National Gallery of Art (later named the National Collection of Fine Arts) begins well before the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution. The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences was established in 1816; and John Varden founded his own museum, later called the Washington Museum, in 1829. These two organizations eventually merged with the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, created in 1840, and incorporated by Congress as the National Institute in 1842. The National Institute displayed its art works in the newly-constructed Patent Office Building, under the care of John Varden. It boasted a large collection of John Mix Stanley and Charles Bird King Indian portraits.
When the Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846, Congress authorized its Regents to collect "all objects of art and of foreign and curious research." Although art did not receive much focus until the early twentieth century, the collection slowly grew. Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, purchased a large collection of George Perkins Marsh etchings and engravings in 1849. In 1858 government-owned art works previously shown in the Patent Building were removed to the west wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building ("Castle"), and in 1862, when the National Institute charter expired, its collections were transferred to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian's small art collection suffered a great setback in 1865, when most of the collection displayed on the second floor of the Castle was destroyed by fire. Surviving works were removed; prints and drawings were stored at the Library of Congress, and paintings and sculptures at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (in the building now home to the Renwick Gallery).
Private contributions helped to rebuild the Smithsonian's art gallery. Most notably, Mrs. Joseph Harrison presented the Institution with a collection of George C. Catlin Indian paintings in 1879, and the new works were shown in the Castle and in the newly-completed National Museum Building. In 1896 the remainder of the Smithsonian collection was recalled from the Library of Congress and the Corcoran by Secretary Samuel P. Langley, and was added to the Catlin collection in the Castle and National Museum Buildings. Langley also created an "Art Room" on the second floor of the Castle, which displayed reproductions of paintings, mostly portraits, by Old Masters, and a frieze of Parthenon reliefs in plaster around the room.
At the turn of the century, however, a national gallery still did not exist in Washington, and pressure increased from outside the Smithsonian to create such an organization. President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for a National Gallery, but Congress failed to act on his request in 1904. In 1903 Harriet Lane Johnston, President James Buchanan's niece and lady of the White House during his administration, bequeathed her large collection to a "national gallery of art." The trustees of her estate refused to release her collection until such a gallery existed, and a legal battle ensued. In 1905 the District of Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Smithsonian collection fell within the description of a national gallery, and the Johnston collection was delivered to the Institution in 1906. The nucleus of the National Gallery consisted of the Johnston Collection of European and American art and the William T. Evans Collection of contemporary American art (added in 1907 with President Theodore Roosevelt's influence). The new additions greatly expanded the Gallery's holdings, but its growth would be severely hampered by the Smithsonian's lack of funds and an unwillingness to begin and support new ventures.
The National Gallery of Art (NGA) was administered under the United States National Museum's (USNM) Department of Anthropology. William Henry Holmes (1846-1933), artist, topographer, archeologist, and geologist, was named first Curator of the NGA, in addition to his duties as Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) Chief (1902-1909), and later as Curator of the Department of Anthropology (1910-1920). Holmes was a part of the Smithsonian most of his life. He was born near Cadiz, Ohio, in the same year as the Institution's founding. A teacher and graduate of McNeely Normal School (1870) in Hopedale, Ohio, Holmes moved to Washington, D.C., in 1871 to study art under Theodor Kaufmann. During his studies he became acquainted with another Kaufmann student, Mary Henry, daughter of Joseph Henry. On her suggestion, he visited the Smithsonian. Ornithologist Jose Zeledon noticed Holmes as he was sketching two birds on exhibit, and Zeledon introduced Holmes to Fielding Bradford Meek, paleontologist and stratigrapher of state and federal surveys. Impressed with his drawings, Meek immediately hired Holmes as an illustrator.
In his first years with the Smithsonian, Holmes joined Ferdinand V. Hayden's U.S. Survey of the Territories as an artist-topographer (1872) and was later appointed assistant geologist (1874). This work inspired his career as an archeologist and his interest in Southwestern cliff dwellings. Between 1880 and 1889 Holmes worked with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Charles Dutton expedition to the Grand Canyon, while also serving as Honorary Curator of Aboriginal Ceramics for the USNM. Holmes achieved great respect for his scientific knowledge and artistic talent. By 1889 he was named Director of the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology.
In 1894 Holmes moved to Chicago to manage the BAE exhibitions at the Field Columbian Museum and to teach anthropic geology at the University of Chicago. During this time he traveled with the Allison V. Armour expedition to the Yucatan. His stay in Chicago lasted until 1897 when he returned to the Smithsonian as Head Curator of the Department of Anthropology. In 1902 he resigned to become the BAE Chief.
Holmes was the natural choice for the Gallery's first Curator. An accomplished artist and advocate of the arts, he was often consulted on questions of exhibition and art before the NGA existed. Holmes can be placed within the tradition of American artist-scientists exemplified by Thomas Jefferson and Charles Willson Peale. His sketches of natural history specimens were highly regarded and are still used by scientists today. As a painter, Holmes is grouped in the "Washington Landscape School." His style appears impressionistic (especially his later work), although he would have rejected that label; Holmes was artistically conservative, and spoke against the aberrations of such artists as Matisse. Leila Mechlin, Washington art critic, considered him one of the best watercolorists in the country.
During his tenure with the National Gallery, the collections grew considerably, adding the Johnston and Evans Collections, as well as the A. R. and M. H. Eddy Collection of miniatures and paintings (1918), the Ralph Cross Johnson and Alfred Duane Pell Collections of European masters (1919), the Henry Ward Ranger bequest (1920), and the John Gellatly Collection (1929), a significant gift of American Renaissance works, decorative arts, and European masters. Holmes also saw the addition of the National Portrait Committee, formed in 1919 to document America's role in World War I.
Space for the national art works was always an issue for the Gallery. Holmes continually lobbied for a separate building to house the Gallery, appealing to America's patriotism and belief in civilization. In its early years, collections were housed in designated areas throughout the Castle and the National Museum Building. When the new museum building, now the Natural History Building, was completed in 1910, the Gallery was allowed space in its central skylighted hall, and a small opening was held March 17, 1910. This, however, was inadequate, and limited both the Smithsonian's art and natural history interests. Donors often hesitated to give to the Gallery due to these space limitations. In 1923 Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led a Congressional motion to set aside space on the Mall east of the Natural History Building for a new American art and history building. The Smithsonian was obligated to raise funds for construction. The Regents raised $10,000 for initial planning costs, and commissioned Freer architect Charles A. Platt to design the new museum. National organizations, most significantly women's clubs, helped campaign for a Gallery building, but did not raise the necessary monies.
In 1920, the Regents established the National Gallery of Art as a separate Smithsonian bureau. Holmes ended his ties with the National Museum and became the Gallery's first Director. As head of the NGA for nearly thirty years, Holmes assembled a remarkable program of exhibitions, organized the meager and scattered collections, and remained committed to the artistic community. He was a member of several art organizations, including the Washington Water Color Club, and was a charter member of the Cosmos Club, in which he promoted art interests.
Holmes retired from the National Gallery in 1932 and died in 1933. He was succeeded by Ruel Pardee Tolman (1878-1954). Tolman was born in Brookfield, Vermont, and educated in California, where he studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, and the University of California at Berkeley. Tolman moved to Washington, D.C., in 1902, where he studied at the Corcoran School of Art (1902-1905) and at the National Academy of Design in New York (1906). He taught at the Corcoran between 1906 and 1918 and was employed in the Graphic Arts Division of the USNM, where he eventually became Curator. He remained with Graphic Arts when he was named Acting Director of the NGA (1932-1946); and later resigned his curatorship to become Director of NGA (1946-1948).
In the late 1930s Andrew Mellon donated his considerable collection for a new gallery of art. In 1937 his collection became the National Gallery of Art, administered by an independent board of trustees, in cooperation with the Smithsonian, and housed in a new building at 7th Street and Constitution Avenue. The former National Gallery was renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA), with Tolman continuing as Acting Director and art works remaining in the Natural History Building "art hall." From the 1930s forward, the NCFA focused more exclusively on American art, and the new National Gallery concerned itself primarily with European Masters.
Tolman resigned from the NCFA in 1948, succeeded by Thomas M. Beggs. During Beggs's administration (1948-1964), Alice Pike Barney, Washington painter, donated part of her collection (1951), which became the core of an extensive lending program later established by Natalie Clifford Barney and Mrs. Laura Dreyfus-Barney, and her Sheridan Circle studio home for meeting purposes (1960).
In 1957 the NCFA, still without a home of its own, was granted use of the Old Patent Office Building, scheduled for demolition but preserved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The NCFA and the Portrait Gallery were transferred to the Patent Office Building in 1962 and opened on May 6, 1968. NCFA portraits were delegated to the Portrait Gallery, decorative arts to the new National Museum of History and Technology, and other works to various Smithsonian bureaus. In 1972 Smithsonian-owned exhibits of crafts and design were removed from storage in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the U.S. Court of Claims into the new Renwick Gallery.