Graphic arts comprise a large part of the museum’s collection, which reveals the central importance of works on paper for American artists, both as studies for creations in other media and as finished works of art. Artists in the collection range from nineteenth-century masters such as John James Audubon, Winslow Homer, John La Farge and Thomas Moran to twentieth-century greats Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper to contemporary artists Wayne Thiebaud, Jennifer Bartlett, and April Gornik. Sean Scully chose the Smithsonian American Art Museum as the sole U.S. repository of a master set of his prints from 1982 to the present.
From 2003-2004, the museum toured Graphic Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, seventy-five rarely lent watercolors, pastels, and drawings from the 1860s through the 1990s. The 2011 exhibition Multiplicity, which also toured the U.S., featured eighty-three works from the museum's permanent collection by such outstanding contemporary artists as John Baldessari, John Cage, Vija Celmins, Chuck Close, R. Luke DuBois, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Julie Mehretu, Martin Puryear, Susan Rothenberg, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker.