AAA Editor Notes
Smithsonian American Art Museum is at 8th and F sts. N.W. One of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world spans four centuries and includes everything from paintings, sculpture and furniture to video and media art. You'll see Colonial portraiture, 19th-century landscapes and New Deal projects from the 1930s. Among the many major artists represented are Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Irving Penn, Norman Rockwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, William H. Johnson, Nam June Paik and Bill Viola.
Highlights from the collection include Albert Bierstadt's “Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” one of the artist's epic, idealized depictions of the American West in which everything looks larger than life. “Peacocks and Peonies I & II,” twin works of extravagantly decorative stained glass by John La Farge, have colors that positively pop. George Catlin's 1830s Indian Gallery, on the other hand, is full of color but also conveys a powerful dignity.
A popular contemporary work is Nam June Paik's “Electronic Superhighway.” Incorporating 336 TVs and multicolored neon tubing, it suggests the enormous scale and diversity of the United States.
There are also exceptional examples of American impressionist paintings, masterpieces from the Gilded Age and contemporary crafts on display. In recent years the museum has strengthened its commitment to contemporary art and media arts and has become a leader in collecting significant aspects of American visual culture, including photography, modern folk and self-taught art, African American and Latino art, and video games.
In addition to viewing art, visitors can go behind the scenes. The Luce Foundation Center, a study center and visible art storage facility, displays some 3,000 artworks in a three-story, sky-lighted space and offers an audio tour. The Lunder Conservation Center—five state-of-the-art labs and studios with glass walls—allows visitors behind-the-scenes views of the painstaking effort that goes into art conservation.
The museum shares the monumental Greek Revival-style building with the National Portrait Gallery. Construction began in 1836 and was completed in 1868. It originally housed the U.S. Patent Office, served as a hospital during the Civil War and was the scene of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball. Visitors can take a self-guided cell phone tour of the building's history; ask at the information desk.
The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard is a sleekly contemporary contrast. This enclosed, climate-controlled space is topped by an elegant glass canopy that lets in lots of natural light, and the undulating design creates sharply etched, crisscrossing shadows across the walls. It's not only a relaxing spot to sit for a spell (free public Wi-Fi is available) but also functions as an elegant venue for the museum's series of free public programs and performances.
Food is available. Time: Allow 2 hours minimum.