There’s much more to Washington, DC than politics and government buildings. Our nation’s capital also has a wealth of impressive art collections and lots of amazing art museums to display them. On your next trip, leave politics out of your vacation and opt to get to know the city through its endless variety of paintings, portraits and unique pieces of art on display. From classic paintings and world-renowned masterpieces to abstract sculptures and large-scale contemporary works, spoil your senses at the magnificent art museums in Washington, DC.
If the lure of storied art and incredible masterpieces isn’t enough to get you to the museums, the free admission at many will be. The Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to its 19 museums (and zoo) free of charge all year long. The hope is that by offering free admission, museums in Washington, DC will be more accessible to people and that visitation will always remain high. This is often surprising to many foreign travelers, and although the decision has been debated over the years, the free access remains a symbol of some of the fundamental aspects of American society.
Another benefit of free admission is that your visits to the numerous art museums in Washington, DC never need to be rushed or cut short. Visit for an hour each day during your vacation in the city to explore a different wing or gallery within the different art museums.
Notable Works of Art Worth Seeing
Ginevra de’Benci (Leonardo da Vinci): The portrait hangs in the National Gallery of Art and is the only da Vinci painting on display to the public in all of the Americas. Some would say it’s the “Mona Lisa” of Washington, DC. The oil portrait was painted in the late 15th-century and shows a somber young woman set against a serene natural landscape. At the time, da Vinci’s naturalism was considered very innovative.
The Rothko Room (Mark Rothko): Located at the Phillips Collection, the Rothko Room was assembled by the artist himself, and the installation is designed to “inspire a contemplative state of mind.” Rothko designed the room to exhibit his art in a scale of normal living and to provide an intimate setting for all who come to admire the colorful works of abstract art.
The Alba Madonna (Raphael): Acquired from the Hermitage in Russia, the Alba Madonna is a premier work of art that was painted by Raphael around 1510. Originally painted on a panel of wood, it has since been transferred to a canvas and it hangs in the National Gallery of Art. Although the painting’s worth is not publicly discussed, it is thought to be valued at upward of $200 million.
Electronic Superhighway (Nam June Paik): When Paik first arrived in the United States from Seoul, Korea he was inspired by the country’s growing highway system. He is hailed as the father of video art and his installation Electronic Superhighway is a spectacular work of art composed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing used to outline the monitors. The massive piece can be seen at the Smithsonian Art Museum.
Luncheon of the Boating Party (Pierre-Auguste Rodin): This idyllic painting hangs on the walls of the Phillips Collection and is the private art museum’s most famous and most popular work of art. It took Renoir months to finish the painting, but the end result is a masterpiece that reflects how French society was beginning to change in the mid- to late 19th century. The painting depicts friends sharing a meal and great conversation on a balcony overlooking the Seine.
Open Window, Collioure (Henri Matisse): Exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Open Window, Collioure exemplifies an early style of modernism. Broad brushstrokes that vary in length and saturated vibrant colors draw admirers to this colorful painting. In addition to being a pretty painting, it serves as a portal to the Mediterranean coast of France when visitors view the Open Window.
Must-Visit Free Washington, DC Art Museums
Most of the city’s free art museums are managed by the Smithsonian Institution with the goal of preserving and sharing our nation’s heritage. The Smithsonian’s 19 museums are all open every day of the year with the exception of December 25, and most are located in close proximity to the National Mall, making it easy to see a little bit of everything during your trip to Washington, DC.
National Gallery of Art: Located on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art has a world-class collection of art that includes historic paintings, a unique sculpture garden and much more. With the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the museum was gifted by Andrew Mellon to the people of the United States in an effort to rival those of other nations. If you prefer pop culture to history, check out the massive exhibit of portraits featuring Time Magazine cover art. This collection not only features many prominent figures, but also many issues that have faced America over the years. Since it opened its doors in 1937, the National Gallery of Art has grown into a magnificent art museum in Washington DC to visit through Mellon’s and other collectors’ generous donations.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: One of the largest art museums in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is comprised of two locations in order to showcase its expansive amount of American art. The main building is a National Historic Landmark, and it is in the city’s Penn Quarter neighborhood. It’s home to an abundance of works of art made in the United State and is renowned as the nation’s first collection of American art. Through each unique painting, sculpture and new acquisition that is displayed, the museum aims to provide a visual record of history. The most prominent masterpieces at this art museum include John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. George Watson, stunning stained glass windows by John La Farge and nineteenth century sculptures by Hiram Powers.
The Renwick Gallery: The Renwick Gallery (considered to be the other half of the Smithsonian Art Museum) is where visitors can find Washington, DC’s contemporary masterpieces and decorative art. The building was recently renovated and offers spectacular rotating exhibitions and a magnificent permanent collection that showcases the finest works of art that the contemporary craft has to offer. Visitor favorites, such as Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock, Jacob Cress’s Oops! and Jen Stark’s Power of Being, provoke admirers’ imaginations and tell unique stories to their viewers.
National Portrait Gallery: Before you could snap a selfie of your face, people had portraits of themselves commissioned. At the National Portrait Gallery you will typically find about 1,400 portraits on display at any one time. Most notable here is the complete collection of presidential portraits and the nation’s first ladies, which are featured at the heart of this Washington, DC art museum. Historical figures, celebrities, scientists and more are also memorialized via canvas and other media. Through the variety of individuals featured, the museum tells the inspiring American story with the help of each one of its portraits.
National Museum of African Art: Although sometimes overshadowed by the larger museums that the Smithsonian operates, the National Museum of African Art is a true gem in the city. Docent-led tours are offered during the week and are a great way to make the most of your time at this art museum. If you have no time constraints, wander from room to room to admire the collection of over 10,000 objects, which represent nearly every part of Africa through many different art forms. While special exhibitions rotate throughout the year, the permanent collection is home to favorites, including the painting The Battle of Adwa, a mosaic bottle by the Bamum peoples and intricate textiles.
Art Museums Worth the Admission Fee in Washington, DC
If you’ve exhausted the plethora of free art museums in the area, don’t fret because there is no shortage of art museums and galleries in Washington, DC worth exploring. Most charge only a nominal fee of $10-15 for adults and many offer discounts for children, students and members of the military.
National Geographic Museum: There is something to entertain and appeal to visitors of all ages here. From interactive exhibits to mesmerizing photo installments a trip to the National Geographic Museum will surely be interesting and educational. While the museum is small, the exhibits change so frequently that you can return every time you visit Washington, DC and still see something new. Nature and human culture are primarily what each of the displays focuses on. Mostly recently, the story of ancient Greek civilization is being told through many pieces of art borrowed from 22 national museums in Greece and gathered in one location.
Dumbarton Oaks: Most frequently visited for its impeccable public gardens, patrons at Dumbarton Oaks will be pleasantly surprised by the top-notch art collections and galleries. In particular, this museum specializes in displays of Byzantine and Pre-Colombian art in the form of gilded artifacts, ancient sculptures, elegant manuscripts, intricate carvings and more. If you’re interested in learning about ancient civilizations and different cultures, than this is the place for you. Located a bit off the beaten path in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks is also typically a bit less crowded than many of the art museums on the National Mall.
The Kreeger Museum: Designed by Philip Johnson, a renowned architect, the building that is home to the Kreeger Museum’s collections is a remarkable work of art in and of itself. Upon entering, visitors will find impressive pieces of art by prominent painters such as Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Chagall. The more well-known works featured here include Picasso’s Head of a Woman, Monet’s Springtime at Giverny and Van Gogh’s Bowl of Zinnias. Most of the art featured here is from the 1850s to the present and varies from impressionist-style paintings to unique outdoor sculptures.
The Phillips Collection: The Phillips Collection is one of Washington, DC’s premier private modern art museums. The intimate setting makes for an unforgettable day at the museum amongst famous artwork and award-winning exhibits. Although there is a small admission fee of $12 to view the museum’s ticketed exhibits, the museum collection is donation-only and a great way to get an overview of what the Phillips Collection has to offer. Highlights and must-see pieces are Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco and Pattern of Leaves by Georgia O’Keeffe. All types of styles from American modernism and contemporary art to French impressionism and other unique styles can be seen here.