The National Gallery of Art is an enormous museum, encompassing two buildings - the original West Building and the more contemporary East Building - as well as an exterior Sculpture Garden. We entered the West Building on the Madison Drive side and checked our bag in at the cloakroom next to the magnificent Rotunda. Thick columns surround the fountain centerpiece, crowned with a statue of Mercury who looks lost under the vast dome that rises over his head.
At the time of its completion, the West Building was the largest marble structure in the world and even from the outside it towers above its subjects, impressing in the same way that London’s British Museum does.
Feeling a little intimidated by the size of the gallery, we picked up a very handy leaflet that identifies West Building highlights that can be covered in under an hour. Normally I wouldn’t want to rush through such a spectacular collection but we still had the East Building to consider and wanted to squeeze in a visit to the National Air and Space Museum across the way before closing time at 5.30pm.
The leaflet highlighted twelve must-see works, including pieces by da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, Vermeer, Monet and Cezanne. Audio tours are available for $5 and guided tours run throughout the day focussing on particular collections.
Opened 37 years later in 1978, the East Building is home to the gallery’s modern art and sculpture collections. Here you can find permanent installations of work by Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder and Sol LeWitt. Connecting the two buildings is a cavernous underground concourse level where the busy gallery café and bookshop are located.
The East Building has an obvious modern and brighter feel to it and is also quite a bit busier than the West side. The temporary Edward Hopper exhibition was clearly a big draw and the queue to get in was particularly long. It’s worth checking ahead of time on permanent and temporary exhibitions as some of them have limited opening times or may require passes.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you check in your bag in the West Building as we did, it’s quite a long walk back to retrieve it after visiting the East Building. If you only want to do a similar "Highlights" tour you still need about a minimum of two hours to visit both buildings. If you have more time though, it would be easy to dedicate an entire day to the National Gallery and adjacent Sculpture Garden.