Guide to Washington, DC: Art Galleries

Washington is packed with galleries featuring everything from modern art to sculpture to the classics.
The National Gallery of Art’s dramatic East Building was designed by architect I.M. Pei. Photograph by Randy Santos.
The National Gallery of Art’s dramatic East Building was designed by architect I.M. Pei. Photograph by Randy Santos.

National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art’s neoclassical West Building is home to one of the world’s best collections of paintings, sculpture, and more, dating from the 13th to the 20th century. The gallery’s I.M. Pei-designed East Building opened in 1978 and houses mostly modern and contemporary art on four levels.

The best way to enter the West Building is through the Mall entrance on Madison Drive, which leads into the building’s dramatic central rotunda. Take a right and you’ll find the newly revamped 19th-century French galleries, which are home to some magnificent works by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and more. On the west side of the building, don’t miss Titian’s “Venus With a Mirror,” Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child,” and “Ginevra de’ Benci,” the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western hemisphere.

The East Building is accessible via the Fourth Street entrance, or through an underground tunnel past the bookstore and Cascade Café on the concourse level (a light sculpture by Leo Villareal, “Multiverse,” adorns the passageway). Inside the 16,000-square-foot atrium, a mammoth Calder mobile hangs from the ceiling; elsewhere, works from Picasso, Pollock, Matisse, and Mondrian accompany pieces by living masters such as Chuck Close and Rachel Whiteread. Don’t miss the gallery’s Sculpture Garden, an elegant six-acre space with works by Louise Bourgeois and Sol LeWitt.

Constitution Ave. between Third and Seventh Sts., NW; 202-737-4215; Metro Station: Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter. Free.

American Art Museum

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, a majestic Greek Revival building in Penn Quarter, is home to both the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The museums take up opposite sides of the building, which boasts a central courtyard with a vast glass roof designed by Norman Foster.

When it opened in its current location in 1968, the American Art Museum was the first collection of its kind, bringing together works by three centuries of US artists. The museum’s galleries include a collection of folk art on the first floor; Civil War, antebellum, and American impressionism exhibits on the second; and an extensive collection of contemporary American art on the third floor, including works by Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Nam June Paik, David Hockney, and others.

Eighth and F Sts., NW; 202-633-1000; Metro Station: Gallery Place-Chinatown. Free.

National Portrait Gallery

A celebration of acclaimed and influential Americans living and dead, the National Portrait Gallery is notable both for its manifold subjects (from Pocahontas and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fred Astaire and Rosa Parks) and for its comprehensive look at the art of portraiture. “American Origins, 1600-1900” provides a historical overview of America through portraiture in 17 galleries, while “America’s Presidents” includes multiple renderings of 43 presidents of the United States. On the third floor, the “20th-Century Americans” gallery includes portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King Jr.

Eighth and F Sts., NW; 202-633-1000; Metro Station: Gallery Place-Chinatown. Free.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Housed with the nationally renowned art school west of the White House, the Corcoran was founded by William Wilson Corcoran in 1869. The museum is home to a hefty collection of French impressionist paintings, British portraiture, and American art. In recent years, the Corcoran’s NOW series has presented exhibitions by contemporary artists.

The permanent collection comprises 16,000 paintings, photographs, sculptures, and decorative items. Highlights include John Singer Sargent’s 1883 portrait of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White in a luminous white dress, Edgar Degas’s 1873 “The Dance Class,” and “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” by Gordon Parks.

500 17th St., NW; 202-639-1700; Metro Station: Farragut West/Farragut North. $10.

Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” at the Phillips Collection. Photograph by Max Hirshfeld.

Phillips Collection

Located in a red-brick former residence near Dupont Circle, this 91-year-old modern-art treasure trove is remarkable for its idiosyncratic approach—works are hung in diverse groups in order to “converse” with one another—as well as the quality of its collection. The crown jewel of the collection is Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” but you’ll also find works by Matisse, Monet, Klee, Whistler, Bonnard, Braque, and more.

1600 21st St., NW; 202-387-2151; Metro Station: Dupont Circle. $10 to $12.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Located in a space-age Gordon Bunshaft-designed circular structure on the south side of the Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of modern and contemporary art. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by Willem de ­Kooning, Jean Dubuffet, Man Ray, and Francis Bacon, as well as recently acquired pieces by Ai Weiwei, Dan Flavin, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Along with a rectangular reflection pool,
the sculpture garden features Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais.”

Seventh St. and Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000; Metro Station: Smithsonian/L’Enfant Plaza. Free.

National Museum of African Art

Originally founded as a private institution, this collection of ancient African manuscripts, costumes, weapons, paintings, and sculptures was folded into the Smithsonian in 1979, and relocated to the Mall in 1987. The current collection includes late-19th-­century carved figures from Benin and a mid-19th-century mask from the Bassa people in Liberia, along with paintings by modern artists such as Constance Larrabee and Gerard Sekoto, and ceramics, metalwork, and jewelry.

950 Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000; Metro Station: Smithsonian/L’Enfant Plaza. Free.

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

A vast collection of art from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Near East fills the rooms of these galleries on the Mall. Inside the Freer’s palazzo-style building is a collection that spans 6,000 years and comprises more than 25,000 objects, including Chinese paintings, Japanese ink drawings, Buddhist sculptures, and Korean ceramics. Highlights from the Sackler Gallery’s collection include Iranian metalworks and Chinese bronzes.

12th St. and Jefferson Dr., SW; 1050 Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000; Metro Station: Smithsonian. Free.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Founded in 1981, this museum’s extensive collection showcases six centuries of female contributions to the arts, from Flemish painter Clara Peeters to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum also organizes a sculpture project on New York Avenue—it currently features works formed from recycled tires by New York artist Chakaia Booker.

1250 New York Ave., NW; 202-783-5000; Metro Station: Metro Center. $8 to $10.

Kreeger Museum

European impressionists and modern American artists alike are well represented in this striking museum designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson. Nine Monets are on display, alongside works by Munch, Miró, and numerous traditional African artists.

2401 Foxhall Rd., NW; 202-337-3050; Not Metro accessible. $7 to $10.

Renwick Gallery

This gallery, adjacent to the White House, show­cases American arts and crafts from the 19th century to the present, including works made from clay, glass, and

1661 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-633-1000; american­ Metro Station: Farragut West/Farragut North. Free.

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