At that time the gallery began, Victoria had been an independent colony for just ten years, but in the wake of the gold rush it was easily the richest part of Australia, and Melbourne the largest city. Generous gifts from wealthy citizens made it possible for the National Gallery to begin buying a large collection of overseas works from both old and modern masters.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, domestic art began to thrive (particularly with the "Heidelberg School" in what was then an outer suburb of Melbourne) and the National Gallery was well-placed to add an excellent collection of key Australian works, which trace the metamorphosis of imported European styles into distinctively Australian art.
The gallery has continued to expand into new areas, becoming an early leader in textiles, fashion, photography, and Australian Aboriginal art. Today it has strong collections in areas as diverse as old masters, Greek vases, and historical European ceramics, and the largest and most comprehensive range of artworks in Australia.
The gallery's name has caused a good deal of confusion over the years, as Victoria is a state, not a nation, and there is another "National Gallery" in Canberra, which is a truly "national" gallery. Some prominent people in the art world, notably the chairman of the rival National Gallery of Australia, have called for the National Gallery of Victoria to be renamed, perhaps to "Melbourne Gallery". This is unlikely to happen, however. Supporters of the gallery point out that Victoria was effectively a nation when the gallery was founded in the 19th century, and that it has been established more than a century longer than the National Gallery in Canberra. According to Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, "We won't be renaming the National Gallery of Victoria. It has a great tradition. It is the biggest and best gallery in the country and it's one of the biggest and best in the world."
The gallery is now spread over two buildings a short distance from each other at the southern end of the CBD - a new space in Federation Square houses the Australian art collection, whilst the 1960's era building just south of the Yarra on St. Kilda Road reopened in December 2003 (after four years of renovations by architect Mario Bellini), hosting the gallery's international artworks.
A famous event in the history of the gallery was the theft of Pablo Picasso's painting "Weeping Woman" in 1986 by a person or group who identified themselves as the "Australian Cultural Terrorists". The group took the painting to protest the perceived poor treatment of the arts by the state government of the time and sought as a ransom the establishment of an art prize for young artists. The painting was returned in a railway locker a week afterwards.
The National Gallery of Victoria's internatioal collection is housed in this building. The entrance features a "water wall", the first in Melbourne.