National Portrait Gallery

Washington DC 20001

Must-See Museums in Washington D.C./National Portrait Gallery
VAMONDE Washington D.C.
Written By VAMONDE Washington D.C.

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is a historic art museum located between 7th, 9th, F, and G Streets NW in Washington, D.C., in the United States. Founded in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968, it is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its collections focus on images of famous Americans. The museum is housed in the historic Old Patent Office Building.

History

The first portrait gallery in the United States was Charles Willson Peale's "American Pantheon" (also known as "Peale's Collection of Portraits of American Patriots"), established in 1796. It closed after two years. In 1859, the National Portrait Gallery in London opened, but few Americans took notice. The idea of a federally owned national portrait gallery can be traced back to 1886, when Robert C. Winthrope, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. Upon his return to the United States, Winthrope began pressing for the establishment of a similar museum in America. In 1937, Andrew W. Mellon, a banker and businessman, donated his large collection of classic and modernist art to the United States, which led to the foundation of the National Gallery of Art.

In 1957, a proposal was made by the federal government to demolish the Old Patent Office Building. After a public outcry and an agreement to save the historic structure, Congress authorized the Smithsonian Institution to use the structure as a museum in March 1958. The National Portrait Gallery was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962. The enabling legislation defined its purpose as displaying portraits of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States."

Collection

As of 2011, the National Portrait Gallery was the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to portraiture. By February 2013, it housed 21,200 works of art, which had been seen by 1,069,932 visitors in 2012

By 1977, the National Portrait Gallery had three curatorial divisions: Painting and sculpture, prints and drawings, and photography. Initially, the National Portrait Gallery had fairly strict rules regarding which images could enter its collection. The person depicted had to be historically significant. An individual also needed to be dead at least 10 years before their portrait could be displayed (although some images of obviously important living people were acquired while they still lived). After an initial affirmative determination by curators at a monthly curatorial meeting, the National Portrait Gallery Commission (the museum's board of directors) approved the person's inclusion. The commission was initially quite conservative in its assessment of "historically significant," although this position began to be more relaxed by 1969. As of 2006, the definition of "historically significant" had become quite loose, although "some kind of fame or notoriety remains a prerequisite". Portraits of living individuals or those dead less than 10 years are also now allowed to be displayed in the museum, as long as their inclusion is clearly important (such as presidents or generals). The process for choosing which images the museum acquires is simple but can be contentious. Potential acquisitions are vigorously and informally discussed at length by researchers, historians, and the curatorial departments. Some of the criteria used in the decision-making process are: The number of existing portraits of the individual already in the collection, the quality of the potential portrait, the uniqueness of the potential portrait, the reputation of the portrait's author, and the cost of the portrait. Formal decisions to acquire a portrait are made at monthly curatorial meetings, then ratified by the National Portrait Gallery Commission.

Hall of Presidents

A hallmark of the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection is the Hall of Presidents, which contains portraits of nearly all American presidents. It is the largest and most complete collection in the world, except for the White House collection itself. The centerpiece of the Hall of Presidents is the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. How the museum obtains presidential images has changed over the years. Presidential portraits from 1962 to 1987 were usually obtained through purchase or donation. Beginning in 1998, NPG began commissioning portraits of presidents, starting with George H. W. Bush. In 2000, NPG began commissioning portraits of First Ladies as well, beginning with Hillary Clinton.

TRAVEL TIP:

Bring your lunch and relax at a table in the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard located in the middle of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Must-See Museums in Washington D.C.

National Portrait Gallery

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