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Washington's Art Museums

From Renaissance masterpieces to impressionist icons and conceptual complexities, Washington's art museums offer astounding variety and superior ease of access. And, as with most of the city's attractions, all but a handful are free.

The city's foremost art institution, the National Gallery of Art consists of an East Wing and West Wing. Beginning at the West Wing, cast a lingering look at "Ginevra de' Benci," the only Leonardo da Vinci in America. Other highlights include Augustus Saint-Gaudens's "Shaw Memorial" and works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, and Paul Cezanne.

Designed by I.M. Pei, the East Wing stands as a work of art in itself. To gain a sense of the space and perspective on the works within, pause on the mezzanine and take in the Alexander Calder mobile, Joan Miro tapestry and Sir Anthony Caro's ledge sculpture. Commissioned for the space, the three works only begin to hint at the variety within the adjoining galleries.

The Smithsonian Institution oversees four museums on the National Mall exclusively dedicated to art. The modern and contemporary art showcase of the Smithsonian is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Instantly recognizable for its ring-shaped design by architect Gordon Bunshaft, the Hirshhorn houses painting, sculpture, photography and multi-media works by a variety of artists. The range of the collection runs from modern masterworks by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to contemporary pieces by Bruce Naumann and Damien Hirst. Be sure to stroll through the Sculpture Garden and catch Auguste Rodin's "Burghers of Callais" alongside works by David Smith and Henry Moore.

Two museums, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art hold the Smithsonian's vast collection of Asian Art. Popular works at the Sackler include sculpture from South and Southeast Asia; Islamic arts; and Chinese paintings, bronzes and lacquerware. The Freer's collection features Chinese paintings, Korean ceramics and Persian manuscripts. In addition, the Freer maintains the world's largest collection of works by American painter and designer James McNeill Whistler, including the gilded and glorious Peacock Room, an 1876 London town house dining room reinstalled within the museum.

Next door to the Sackler, find the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, dedicated to the arts of Africa from the ancient to the contemporary. Highlights include an elaborately carved palace door by Olowe of Ise, a Bamum royal figure, masks, figurative sculptures and the ceramic and contemporary art galleries.

Just off the Mall, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery are closed for renovations until 2006. Still open to the public is the crafts wing of the American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery, half a block from the White House. Some of the most popular works on view include Larry Fuente's mounted "Game Fish," comprised of vibrant everyday found objects, and iron virtuoso Albert Paley's "Portal Gates."

Around the corner from the Renwick stands the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the oldest art museum in the city. The Corcoran's collection reflects its 19th-century origins, including the grand landscapes of Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. At the same time, its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions serve as some of the best sources for contemporary art in the city. The museum recently commissioned prize-winning architect Frank O. Gehry to design its newest wing.

Just north of Dupont Circle is the Phillips Collection, a museum smaller in scale, but no less in stature. The Phillips began as the private holdings of Washingtonian Duncan S. Phillips, who later turned his home and collection into a museum featuring impressionist masterpieces such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir's famous "Luncheon at the Boating Party" and works by modern masters Georgia O'Keeffe, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn among others.

--Maura McCarthy

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