I have spent two years visiting Washington, D.C. for work on a weekly or every-other-week basis. I love this city, with its energy, its intrigues, its famous residents, and its power. I also love it, of course, for the many sights to be seen.
I worked near the White House and was close to a lot of key sites. One of these was surprisingly close to work: one block away (as was the IMF and the New Executive Building). It is the Renwick Gallery, a Smithsonian Museum for American art. I had walked past it, likely, a hundred times always making a mental note to go in some time. With it being free (as all Smithsonian Museums are), how could I not with it being so close?
Well, I finally did on my last week in DC. You see, I had to first do the White House tour. That took me a year and a half to request and do so this one took longer… OK, enough excuses. It was my last week and I decided that instead of just going out for lunch, I would see the gallery.
What an excellent decision! For starters, it was small enough to do a medium speed walkabout checking out its contents.
History of a beautiful building
The Renwick Gallery is a miracle. It took Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy to save this beautiful building from the demolition of old gems that most modern city planners could care less about that almost was carried out. This building, which is located right by the White House, was finished in 1861 and had been commissioned by William Corcoran to exhibit publicly his private art collection. Its architect was James Renwick who also designed the main and iconic Smithsonian building on The Mall, in D.C. In any case, right when the building was finished, the federal government took over the building for Civil War purposes. Eventually, it was returned and it housed the Corcoran collection until it could no longer hold all the art and another building was constructed. At that point this building was used and eventually purchased by the government. Thankfully, JFK and Jackie O were successful in keeping this majestic yet small structure around for us to enjoy (though the massive ugly New Executive Building was erected next to it on the corner of 17th and H…).
A new art form to learn: furniture making
When I visited, there was a special exhibit for Thomas Day, a freed slave from North Carolina who made excellent furniture for the rich families of the area in the mid-1800s (give or take). So successful was he that these families petitioned the government of North Carolina to allow a free black woman he wanted to marry to be allowed to enter North Carolina from Virginia (this was allowed apparently pre-Civil War). They liked him so much they allowed him to worship at the white church AND sit with the whites. His furniture style was unique and I learned a good bit about a topic I knew little about. Photos were not allowed so I can’t grace this post with one…
The main exhibit – American art
The museum is intended for American art. It has a massive room which is just architecturally and otherwise beautiful. There are just the right number of paintings to allow one to absorb what there is. The paintings seemed, my recollection may fail me, to be from the early-mid 1800s to the early 1900s. I discovered a new favorite painter: Guy Wiggins (1883-1962) whose impressionist work (or impressionist-like to me) really grabbed my attention.
The massive room really was worthy of admiring, paintings or not!
But it’s not all “old” stuff – at all!
Funny how stuff from the 19th and early 20th century can be considered old… Only in the USA! However, there are a few rooms exhibiting really neat art work from glass to a fish made from toys (not sure what it is… it is not sculpted, nor painted…). This part of the collection includes a couple of interesting furniture pieces, one of which really is something I could have never dreamed of (I will leave it for YOU to discover!).
I am SO glad I finally went inside and checked it out. My kind of art museum: not overwhelming but manageable, not just one form of art but a variety, and an interesting special exhibit. Thumbs up for a nice museum in Washington, D.C. that is sort of off-the-beaten path if that is possible one block away from the White House!