National Portrait Gallery

Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone for the National Portrait Gallery in 1836 to begin construction of the 3rd public building in Washington DC. Completed in 1868, the building first housed the U.S. Patent Office, and later served as a barracks and hospital during the Civil War, a ballroom for Lincoln’s inaugural, and was, at one time, scheduled for demolition and replacement with a parking lot. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the Gallery at 8th and F Streets officially opened to the public in 1968. After closing in 2000 for extensive restoration, which included the addition of skylights, a curving double staircase, vaulted, naturally lit galleries, and a 346-seat underground auditorium, the Gallery reopened on July 1, 2006. This historic building, an example of Greek Revival architecture at its finest, now houses the 57,000 square foot Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both part of the Smithsonian Institute and each occupying one half of the building. The two museums are referred to collectively as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, renamed in 2005 in honor of the largest museum donor.

The diversity of the collections in the National Portrait Gallery is represented with over 20,000 portraits, photographs, sculpture, and caricatures of the presidents, famous sports figures, celebrities, and national leaders of significance to American history. The Gallery houses several permanent exhibits including “America’s Presidents,” the most complete collection of portraits outside the White House. Considered one of our nation’s treasures and a main attraction of this exhibit is Gilbert Stuart’s lifesize Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, painted some 205 years ago and reflecting unique symbolism and artistry. It was commissioned in 1796 by a wealthy American, Senator Bingham, as a gift for the Marquis of Lansdowne, who displayed it at his home until 1805. This remarkable portrait also resided with the 5th Earl of Rosebury, the Dalmeny House in Scotland, and was eventually loaned to the Portrait Gallery in 1968. Ultimately, this famous work of art, valued at over $20 million, was purchased by the Reynolds Foundation as a permanent gift to the Gallery. Along with a video presentation of FDR through Clinton, the exhibit places special emphasis on the presidents who had the most influence on our nation’s history such as Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

“American Origins 1600-1900” traces U.S history in 17 galleries from the time of the colonists through the Civil War. From Pocahontas and Henry Clay to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the galleries include photographs, original negatives, and portraits, as well as a special collection of daguerreotypes of many early Americans. Other permanent exhibits at the Gallery include fourteen bronze sculptures of important persons from the 20th century, with emphasis on social justice and worldwide freedom; Bravo, a collection of portraits of noteworthy composers and entertainers in the performing arts, and Champions, the artifacts, photographs, and other memorabilia of our nation’s famous sports figures and their influence on America.

Temporary exhibits ongoing this year include Gifts to the Nation, featuring the people who gave through music, science, and culture, and the Presidency and the Cold War, with video and narration about historical figures such as Stalin and Churchill in the latter part of the 20th century. Portraits of living persons are featured in Americans Now, those who are contributing or influencing our nation through sports, entertainment, politics, science, and art. Other exhibitions scheduled for 2007 include 60 portraits of famous figures from British history such as Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. In addition, the exhibit has portraits of Darwin and Newton, scientists who shaped much of both countries’ history, renowned portrait painters, and digital video portraits by Sam Wood. The Gallery is also presenting Alexander Talbot Rice, one of the youngest artists to be commissioned for royal portraiture, in a first public exhibition of Queen Elizabeth II’s 2002 Golden Jubilee and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on loan from the Ironmongers historic guild and Windsor Castle.

Being There, an exhibit by photojournalist Harry Benson, includes photos of newsworthy events from around the world, from Jackie Kennedy meeting Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace to the funeral of Martin Luther King. Portraiture Now is a collection of memorable faces and events by five contemporary artists including Alfredo Arreguin, Brett Cook, Kerry James Marshall, Tina Mion, and Faith Ringgold. The artists have created paintings, wall installations, quilts, and other visual art to enhance the public’s awareness of the role each individual played in history such as Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo, and Josephine Baker.

The Gallery houses a historical archive of over 6,000 documents and three generations in the family papers of Charles Willson Peale, famous artist, soldier, and naturalist. The Paul Peck Presidential awards, named after the Gallery’s largest individual donor and philanthropist, are presented each year to individuals who have provided outstanding achievement in support of the presidency. Since the founding of these awards in 2002, recipients have included former Ambassador Howard Baker Jr., journalist Hugh Sidey, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, and Arthur Schlesinger, author and professor.

Hours: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. — 7:00 p.m. Closed December 25. Free admission. Ph: 202-633-8300
Dining: Upper West Side Café, 3rd floor, and Portico Outdoor café.
Walk-in Tours: Weekdays — 11:45 a.m., 1:00 and 2:15 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays — 11:45 a.m., 1:30 and 3:15 p.m. (1st and 3rd Saturday of the month also offered in Spanish). No reservations required. Guest speakers, curators, and historians present lectures and special programs throughout the year.

(Notes: A unique feature within the museum is the Lunder Conservation Center, where visitors can view the curators at work in preserving the Gallery’s treasures.)
(Many current and past exhibitions are available for viewing online at the National Portrait Gallery website.)

Comments are closed.