Smithsonian American Art Museum
History, Collection Highlights, Contact Details.

Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington DC


Permanent Collection
Contact Details

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum houses one of the nation's best collections of American art. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum's artworks are reflective of American culture from the colonial period to the era of modern art. Over 7,000 artists are represented in their collection, including works by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), David Hockney (b.1937) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Other types of art, including Contemporary folk artifacts, 19th century landscape painting, American Impressionism, and pieces from the Gilded Age are all well represented, as is African-American art, photography, sculpture, prints, drawings, folk art, 20th century abstract art and New Deal projects. In 1972 the Renwick Gallery opened as a branch of the main museum to house the collection of American crafts. In recent years the museum has also been strengthening its collections of contemporary art through the acquisition and commissioning of new works.

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Additional Cultural Services

Between 2000 and 2006 the main museum building was expanded to make more room for its growing permanent collection as well as to create extra temporary exhibition space. Another addition to the museum's facilities is The Luce Foundation Center, which is a visible art storage space where visitors can browse more than 3,300 artworks which are not on display in the main museum. It adjoins the Lunder Conservation Center, an art conservation facility where the public can peak behind the scenes at any preservation works being carried out. In addition to all this, the museum maintains a highly regarded National Outreach program which organizes artworks from the collection to be exhibited in galleries around the United States.


The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s origins began humbly in 1829 when 30 year old John Varden took it upon himself to give the nation's capital an art museum. He began the collection modestly with bequests from private collectors and organizations. In 1841 a committee of the newly established National Institute accepted the collection and housed it in the United States Patent Office building - which despite a good deal more moving to come – ended up as its permanent home a century later. In the 1860s when the National Institute was disbanded it became a part of the Smithsonian art collection. In 1906 the art collector Harriet Lane Johnston (who was also a niece of President James Buchanan) forced the federal court to recognize the Smithsonian collection as a National Gallery of Art. Soon the newly named collection attracted major gifts, among them diverse paintings from collector John Gellatly, as well as Barbizon landscapes and works of American Impressionism from William Evans. Yet plans to build a permanent home for the collection came and went. It was not until 1957 when Congress turned the old Patent building over to the Smithsonian that this dream was fulfilled. After major renovations the collection opened to the public in 1968. In 2000 it was renamed the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



Permanent Collection

American Colonies

Features many paintings of colonial times including portraits by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), landscapes by Thomas Cole (1801-48) and sculpture by Horatio Greenough (1805-52).

19th Century Art: Western Art & Impressionism

Paintings by members of The Hudson River School, including depictions of America's Wild West by Asher Durand (1796-1886). George Catlin's (1796-1875) collection of 400 paintings and portraits of Indian tribes from the 1830s is particularly noteworthy. Also landscape paintings by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), works by painter, printmaker and sculptor Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and sweeping oils by landscapist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902); as well as works from members of the Taos School. The museum also has an extensive collection of American Impressionism and Gilded Age works; including paintings by Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), and John Twachtman (1853-1902). The Pre-World War I era was dubbed the 'Gilded Age' by writer Mark Twain at a time when artists such as Whistler (1834-1903) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910) helped introduce a sophistication into American art and society.

20th-Century Art: Realism & Abstraction

The museum has pushed it's acquisition in contemporary art in recent years, and now owns important abstract paintings by Sean Scully (b.1945), Walton Ford (b.1960), photographer Barbara Bosworth (b.1953), conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (b.1950), sculptor of cast-off objects Jean Shin (b.1971) and Robert Longo (b.1953). Noteworthy is Scully's painting Maesta (1983). The museum also has numerous video installations and time-based art works from contemporary artists like Nam June Paik (1932-2006), Marina Zurkow and digital artist Cory Arcangel (b.1978).


American sculpture is represented by 19th century American sculptors such as Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), Hiram Powers (1805-73) and Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907). There are also modern works by assemblage pioneer Louise Nevelson (1900-88), Deborah Butterfield (b.1949), Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) and Martin Puryea (b.1941).

Works on Paper: Drawings, prints and Photographs

A significant portion of this collection is comprised of graphic art. There is drawing by the likes of John James Audubon (1785-1851), Edward Hopper, April Gornik (b.1953) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926), to name but three. Viewers can gain an insight into how artists develop their works to canvas. There is also a collection of 20th century prints incorporating works from Sean Scully who has nominated the Smithsonian as the sole American repository of his master prints from 1982 onwards. American history can be traced with daguerreotypes, and other fine art photography from early photographers such as Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins.

Folk Art, African American Art and Latino Art

In addition to works exemplifying American folk art movements such as Regionalism (flourished 1930s) and American Scene Painting (c.1925-45), the Smithsonian holds more than 2,000 works by African American artists, including key works by William H Johnson (1901-70) such as 'Going to Church', depicting a black family on a horse and cart on their way to Sunday church. African American history, from the Great Migration and Jazz age are depicted by other artists like Romare Bearden (1911-88) and Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-72). More recent to the collection are about 500 pieces of Latino art, including woven textiles and paintings.

Contemporary Craft & Decorative Arts

Decorative art covers the colonial period through the so-called Gilded Age and onto the present day. Highlights include a piano decorated by Thomas Wilmer Dewing which was originally donated by Steinway & Sons to the White House. Also, stained glass art by muralist and decorator John La Farge (1835-1910). This collection is split between the Renwick Gallery and Luce Center. It also encompasses crafts made from glass, metal, clay, fiber and wood as well as furniture and jewellery. Larry Fuente's 'Game Fish' is popular with visitors to the Renwick Gallery.

Top 10 Highlights of the Smithsonian Collection

The following is a list of items which the museum considers its top 10 artworks:

1) Portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman, 1893) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

2) Peacocks and Peonies I and II (1882) by John La Farge (1835-1910). Chief rival of Louis Comfort Tiffany, La Farge created these 2 stained-glass windows with luscious blue jewel tones.

3) Manhattan (1932) by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Abstract cityscape of down town New York - an exemplar of the urban Precisionism style.

4) Achelous and Hercules (1947) by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Benton draws on Greek mythology for this tempera and oil on canvas which he mounted on wood to create a mural.

5) The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (1950-64) by James Hampton (1909-64). A junk art sculpture of a crown made from found objects and other people's trash. Discovered in the artist's garage after his death.

6) Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Oil painting of America's West. A master of self promotion, Bierstadt used to unveil his canvases as theatrical events, selling tickets and planting news stories about their making.

7) Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995) by Nam June Paik (1932-2006). Video installation of a road trip across America. The artist reminds the viewer that each state still retains their individual cultures, even in the modern age of information and technology.

8) For SAAM (2007) by Jenny Holzer (b.1950). Sculpture comprising of 6,200 LED lights bringing words alive, the words are programmed to swirl around the body of the main piece, varying in direction.

9) Banquet (2003) by Beth Lipman (b.1971). Glass sculpture comprising of a long wooden dinner table set with 400 blown and lampworked glass objects, reminiscent of a 17th century Dutch still life painting.

10) Game Fish (1988) by Larry Fuente (b.1957). Mixed media, a fish is transformed into a sculpture with a colourful array of beads, found objects, ping pong balls and poker chips. The title of the piece is a pun on a classic fisherman's trophy and the game pieces which encrust the surface.

Contact Details

Smithsonian American Art Museum
750 9th Street, N.W.
Suite 3100
Washington, DC 20001

+1 202 633-7970



Opening Times

11.30am - 7pm daily
Closed December 25

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