The art displayed in the McDowell Galleries features work from the Akron Art Museum collection from 1850 - 1950. The galleries are currently arranged according to three themes: In a Romantic Mood: Turn of the Twentieth Century Painting; The Modernist Approach: Northeast Ohio's Artists and Collectors; and William Sommer: Master of Ohio's Brandywine Valley.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many American artists retreated from the realities of the early modern era—with its burgeoning industry, crowded cities and devastating Civil War—and envisioned instead an American Eden. Bearing the heritage of author/naturalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, artists found a sense of tranquility in the rural landscape. They often painted in a "tonalist" style, blurring forms and using a limited range of colors to enhance the meditative quality of their works. Some artists gave themselves over to a meloncholy mood, utilizing traditional symbols of transformation or death by creating nocturnes (compositions evoking the dreamlike qualities of night) or still lifes with flowers past their prime.

Many of the artists in this gallery were part of the Cleveland School, a term applied to a loosely-affiliated group of artists working in northeast Ohio in the early twentieth century. Most attended the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) and participated in exhibitions, workshops and social events aimed at fostering an interest in fine art in an industrially-based region. Some northeast Ohio artists explored European modrn art styles such as impressionism, cubism and expressionism and applied them to their images of factories and city streets. Others worked in a more traditional realistic style, rendering the Midwestern landscape and its people with lifelike detail.

Rendering farmland, friends and animals in vivid colors and bold shapes inspired by European modernism, William Sommer added a dynamic dimension to American regionalist painting of the early twentieth century. Although he earned his living as a commercial artist, he was dedicated to fine art. When Sommer came to Cleveland in 1907, he became friendly with progressive artists in the region and co-founded the Kokoon Klub, an avant-garde art and social group. An avid reader, Sommer discussed philosophy, literature, music and modern art movements with the many visitors to his home and studio in the rural Brandywine Valley between Akron and Cleveland.

Installation of the Akron Art Museum's collection has been made possible with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. and the National Endowment for the Arts.