The National Gallery of Art – Featuring the Only da Vinci in the United States

Ginevra de’ Benci, c1474 oil painting on a wood panel.

Thirty-five years ago on a college semester in Paris, I visited the Louvre.  Like most tourists I made a beeline for the Mona Lisa and took a picture through the thick glass that protects her.

Ginevra de’ Benci is painted on a wood panel and this is the back of it. It is loaded with significance, and each item depicted has multiple meanings.

I would not see another da Vinci until this past summer when I visited Poland, and saw the  Lady with an Ermine.  Very few of his works survive and most are in Europe.

Lady with an Ermine hangs in the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. When I went pictures were not allowed, so this photo is from Wikipedia.

It was in Krakow, at the Wawel Castle that I learned this fact.  Of all da Vinci’s paintings, there were only three female portraits.  A basic google search brings this into question, but I am no art expert and was not about to argue with a museum guide.  The guide said the Mona Lisa was one, Lady with an Ermine the second, and the third was called Ginevra de’ Benci and hung in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC!

It was here at the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland that I saw da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, and learned she was one of only three portraits of a woman. I also learned that the third (after the Mona Lisa) was on display in Washington, DC, 5 miles from my house!

My friend and Polish guide Radek was with me and was planning on visiting DC in the Fall so we agreed when he got there we would visit it together and join what had to be a small club of people who had seen all three.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday we visited the National Gallery.  It’s right on the National Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.  The museum has a world class collection including some of the most famous impressionist works known.

The National Gallery of Art hosts a world class collection including this Van Gough masterpiece!

I also learned, however, that the Ginevra de’ Benci is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the entire United States!  I’ve lived in the DC area for over 30 years and had no idea!  This painting is approximately 540 years old and radiates timeless beauty!

The DC painting was, for me, the best experience of the three.  The Mona Lisa constantly has a giant crowd around it and the glass case is so thick it’s hard to see the detail of the painting.  The Lady with an Ermine though strikingly beautiful, is small, and heavily guarded in a rather dark room, and again, one cannot get very close to it, nor photograph it.

Pardon the blurry photo, this is the sign beside the painting. There’s a very interesting story about the painting including the symbolism on the back.


Meanwhile, in the National Gallery, you can get up very close and see the brush strokes!  The lighting is ideal and the crowds that day were nonexistent.  The painting is on a wood panel and features painting on the back as well!

The Smithsonian National Gallery of Art is a wonderful place to visit even if you don’t see a single painting! It is a serene welcome break from the more touristy museums that surround it.


If you’re planning a trip to Washington, DC, I highly recommend a visit to the National Gallery.  Like the rest of the Smithsonian, it is free.  It is beautiful, peaceful, and offers a glorious place to sit and relax after enduring the Air & Space Museum, or the Museum of American History!

If you live in the DC area, I encourage you to visit the National Gallery frequently.  Visit just a single room or style and focus just on that.  It is a world class art collection with free and convenient access.



  1. It’s been such a long time since Ive read a Tony post, but I read this and it brought me right back to the days of many chitty chats in our bicles :). You have such a way with words Tony and you are able to make the reader feel like they were actually there. Thank you so much for sharing! What an awesome experience to have had!

    Much love!

  2. Tony thank you for reminding me about seeing that in Krakow. I too want to join that club and will plan a visit to DC soon!

    Jane Trombly (O) 267-297-5124 (M) 215-982-0466

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