The National Portrait Gallery

Established in 1962 by Congress, the National Portrait Gallery’s mission is “to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery shares a building with the American Art Museum (also owned and curated by the Smithsonian).

Housed in a National Historic Landmark Building which once held our nation’s founding documents and served as a hospital for ailing and injured soldiers during the Civil War, the National Portrait Gallery is truly a Washington Institution.

Once limited to just paintings, the museum’s collection has now grown to house over 23,000 different items of all sorts, from really early versions of photographs (called daguerreotypes) to sculptures and engravings. The NPG uses these items to tell the story of the United States through the individuals who shaped its culture. Whether you’re an art fan, pop culture fanatic, or history buff, there’s something within the walls of the National Portrait Gallery for you.

Fun Facts about the National Portrait Gallery

  • Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, once walked the halls of this magnificent building during her time as a clerk for the Patent Office commissioner.
  • The National Portrait Gallery owns the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. 
  • The NPG now commissions these portraits. Something they started in the 1990s, beginning with then-president George H.W. Bush.

Below we’ve included a FAQ Section with lots of logistical information to help you plan your visit. Scroll down to view our “5 Things to See at the National Portrait Gallery” for a quick virtual tour of sorts.

Seem like a lot of art to cover? Let us do the work for you! Come check out one of our new renegade tours or bring your team to learn from some of the best figures history has to offer. 

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5 Things to See at the National Portrait Gallery

Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” painting of George Washington

Originally commissioned by American Senator, William Bingham as a gift for the first Marquis of Lansdowne, William Petty, this portrait was celebrated by the British as a symbol of George Washington endorsing the controversial Jay Treaty which settled claims with Great Britain after the Revolutionary War.

Stuart painted multiple copies of the original Lansdowne portrait, as well as variations (one of which ended up belonging to Alexander Hamilton). Due to the fact that there were so many nearly identical copies of the portrait floating around, it took years of controversy to finally determine that the National Portrait Gallery owned the original “Lansdowne” painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This determination happened in 2004, nearly 50 years after the painting was originally loaned to the museum.

In 2001, the museum nearly lost this panting when it’s owner decided to place it up for auction until a gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation allowed it to be purchased and housed at the museum permanently. It now graces the entrance of the presidential gallery. 

The “cracked-plate” portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner

Taken by the artist in his studio (which was right near where the National Portrait Gallery sits now), the copy of this portrait which hangs on the walls of the museum is the only one to exist. That’s because the glass plate (the film before film existed) cracked when Gardner applied the emulsion to it in order to pull the portrait. After making this single copy, Gardner then threw the plate away.

This image was captured on February 5, 1865, a mere two months before President Lincoln’s tragic death. Perhaps because only one copy exists or because of Lincoln’s soft, confident smile (this was taken near the end of the Civil War), this image has an intense, dramatic power. Come see it for yourself!

Andy Warhol’s portrait of Michael Jackson

Commissioned by TIME Magazine to celebrate Thriller’s record sales figures and unprecedented Grammy wins this silkscreen portrait embodies all things iconic.  Despite the fact that Warhol indicated in his diary that he didn’t actually like the painting, TIME staff did and published the image on the cover of the March 19, 1894 issue. 

The portrait hangs in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery thanks to an ongoing relationship with TIME Magazine which has resulted in the museum gaining many portraits of 20th century figures on display today.

Foster’s canopy, which covers the Kogod Courtyard

Built in 2004, this modern structure compliments the historic building to which it’s attached, accenting the space differently depending on the time of day and weather outside. 

To quote Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, “It is, however, worth seeing the canopy at different times throughout the day. The glass roof is an undulating form, supported by eight slender columns. When the sun is out, it casts a lattice of shadows on the walls of the old building. When it’s cloudy, the sky seems farther away, chilly and remote. When the sun is setting, the double-glazed glass filters the light and colors into a watery, otherworldly presence.”

If you’re in the Penn Quarter, this is a great place to come hang out!

The portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama

While this is technically 2 things to see, these portraits share a similar significance – not only are they images of the first African-American First Family, they were commissioned of African-American artists.

In addition to the fact that Kehinde Wiley painted a particularly colorful portrait of the President, Barack Obama’s image stands in stark contrast to the 43 presidential portraits that come before it.

The circumstantial contrast and historical significance of the portraits makes them a must-see, for sure.