Place
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
art museum in Washington, D.C.
Disclaimer

Disclaimer

Images

We do our best to use images that are open source. If you feel we have used an image of yours inappropriately please let us know and we will fix it.

Accuracy

Our writing can be punchy but we do our level best to ensure the material is accurate. If you believe we have made a mistake, please let us know.

Visits

If you are planning to see an artwork, please keep in mind that while the art we cover is held in permanent collections, pieces are sometimes removed from display for renovation or traveling exhibitions.

Arty Fact

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
art museum in Washington, D.C.
5
Average: 5 (2 votes)

8th St NW & F St NW
Washington, District Of Columbia
United States

ldare's picture

Sr. Editor

My love for my first internship with the National Portrait Gallery will never die.

Before the museums moved in, this building served as a patent office, a military barrack, a hospital and morgue (during the Civil War), the venue for Lincoln's second inaugural ball, another patent office, the Civil Service Commission, and many more offices before finally being turned over to the Smithsonian by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958.

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Renovation costs are always underestimated and this building was no exception! Originally estimated at $110 million to $120 million the final cost was $283 million. The center courtyard alone came to $63 million. To be fair, it came out great and Condé Nast Traveler magazine named the courtyard as one of the seven new architectural wonders of the world

Andrew W. Mellon (banker, oil/steel/shipping magnate, Secretary of the Treasury, art lover) donated his large collection of art to the United States (resulting in the development of the National Gallery of Art) and stated that if the United States were to ever build a portrait gallery that any of the portraits that he had donated were to be immediately turned over to it.

If you are ever curious about a portrait, just e-mail the fine folks of the Portrait Gallery at NPGResearch@si.edu. They can provide you with tons of information that hides in the depths of the Smithsonian, portraits that aren't on display, and much more!

The Portrait Gallery was kind enough to allow political comedian Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report to hang his portrait in the Museum. Steps away from The President's Gallery ... next to the toilets. 

While interning with the Portrait Gallery I would usually take my lunches in the center courtyard or on the outside steps. The courtyard is amazingly serene and sometimes the fountains would be on, which was a nice touch. Oh, and if they still have it, I highly recommend the cafe's turkey cranberry sandwiches. They were my favorite. 

Featured Content

Here is what Wikipedia says about National Portrait Gallery (United States)

The National Portrait Gallery is a historic art museum 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, as is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

History

Founding of the museum

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 January 1919, the Smithsonian Institution entered into a cooperative endeavor with the American Federation of Arts and the American Mission to Negotiate Peace to create a National Art Committee. The committee's goal was to commission portraits of famous leaders from the various nations involved in World War I. Among the committee's members were oil company executive Herbert L. Pratt, Ethel Sperry Crocker (an art aficionado and wife of William Henry Crocker, founder of Crocker National Bank), architect Abram Garfield, Mary Williamson Averell (wife of railway executive E. H. Harriman), financier J. P. Morgan, attorney Charles Phelps Taft (brother of President William Howard Taft), steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, and paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. The portraits commissioned went on display in the National Museum of Natural History in May 1921. This formed the nucleus of what would become the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

In 1937, Andrew W. Mellon donated his large collection of classic and modernist art to the United States, which led to the foundation of the National Gallery of Art. The collection included a large number of portraits. Mellon asked that, should a portrait gallery be created, the portraits be transferred to it. David E. Finley, Jr., an attorney and one of Mellon's closest friends, was named the first director of the National Gallery of Art, and he pushed hard over the next several years for the establishment of a portrait gallery.

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. Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian Art Commission asked the Chancellor of the Smithsonian to appoint a committee to organize a national portrait museum and to plan for the establishment of this museum in the Old Patent Office Building. This committee was created in 1960.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) 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." The legislation specified, however, that the museum's collection be limited to painting, prints, drawings, and engravings. Despite the Smithsonian's own extensive collection of art and Mellon's collection, there was very little for the National Portrait Gallery to display. "To found a portrait gallery in the 1960s," Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley said, was difficult because "American portraiture has already reached the zenith in price and the nadir in supply." Ripley, whose leadership of the Smithsonian began in 1964, was a strong supporter of the new museum, however. He encouraged the museum's curators to build a collection from scratch based on individual pieces chosen through high-quality scholarship rather than buying complete collections from others. The NPG's collection was slowly built over the next five years through donations and purchases. The museum had little money at this time. Often, it located items it wanted and then asked the owner to simply donate it.

The first NPG exhibit, "Nucleus for a National Collection," went on display in the Arts and Industries Building in 1965 (the bicentennial of James Smithson's birth). The following year, the NPG completed the Catalog of American Portraits, the first inventory of portraiture held by the Smithsonian. The catalog also documented the physical characteristics of each artwork, and its provenance (author, date, ownership, etc.). The museum moved into the Old Patent Office Building with the National Fine Arts Collection in 1966. It opened to the public on October 7, 1968.

Building the collection

The Old Patent Office Building was renovated in 1969 by the architectural firm of Faulkner, Fryer and Vanderpool. The renovation won the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 1970. The following year, the NPG began the National Portrait Survey, an attempt to catalog and photograph all portraits in all formats held by every public and private collection and museum in the country. On July 4, 1973, the NPG opened "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800," the first exhibit at the museum dedicated solely to African Americans. Philanthropist Paul Mellon donated 761 portraits by French-American engraver C.B.J.F. de Saint-Mémin to the museum in 1974.

Congress passed legislation in January 1976 allowing the National Portrait Gallery to collect portraits in media other than graphic arts. This permitted the NPG to begin collecting photographs. The Library of Congress had long opposed the move in order to protect its own role in collecting photographs, but NPG Director Marvin Sadik fought hard to have the ban eliminated. The NPG rapidly expanded its photography collection, and in October 1976 established a Department of Photographs. The gallery's first photography exhibit, "Facing the Light: Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes," opened in September 1978. It also continued to build its other collections. In February 1977, the museum acquired an 1880 self-portrait by Mary Cassatt, one of only two painted by her. Eleven months later, the museum acquired a self-portrait by John Singleton Copley. The roundel (a circular canvas), one of only four self-portraits by the celebrated early American artist, was donated to the NPG by the Cafritz Foundation.

In May 1978, Time magazine donated 850 original portraits which had graced its cover between 1928 and 1978. A major exhibit of these pieces debuted in May 1979.

The Stuarts controversy

A major controversy occurred in 1979 over the National Portrait Gallery's attempt to buy two Gilbert Stuart paintings. The famous, unfinished portraits of George and Martha Washington were owned by the Boston Athenaeum, which loaned them to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1876. But the Athenaeum, a private collection, was suffering from financial difficulties by the late 1970s. It twice offered to sell the two portraits to the Museum of Fine Arts over the previous two years, but the museum declined to purchase them. The Athenaeum began searching for another buyer, and in early 1979 the Athenaeum tentatively reached an agreement to sell the works to the NPG for $5 million. When the Athenaeum made these discussions public in April 1979, there was strong public opposition to the sale in Boston. NPG director Marvin Sadik declined to cancel the sale, arguing that the portraits were of national historic value and belonged in the Smithsonian. A campaign by prominent Bostonians tried to raise $5 million to keep the portraits in Massachusetts.Boston Mayor Kevin H. White sued to keep the portraits in Boston, naming Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti (whom the state constitution designated "custodian of public property") in the suit. "Everybody knows Washington has no culture—they have to buy it," White said.

On April 12, the Athenaeum and NPG agreed to delay the sale until December 31, 1979, to give the Boston fund-raising effort a chance. Although not completely successful, the lawsuit had one effect: Attorney General Bellotti announced in mid-summer that the Stuart portraits could not be sold without his permission. By November 1979, the fund-raising campaign had netted only $885,631, with a pledge from the Museum of Fine Arts to match the amount if necessary. This left the campaign $4 million short of the purchase price. The Athenaeum refused to lower the price, describing the $5 million listing as a significant discount from the portraits' real value.

With public and political pressure on the Smithsonian to resolve the issue, the Museum of Fine Arts and NPG agreed on February 7, 1980, to jointly purchase the portraits. Under the agreement, the paintings would spend three years at the National Portrait Gallery (beginning in July 1980), and then three years in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts. Attorney General Bellotti approved the plan in March. Per the agreement, the portraits went on display in Washington on July 1, 1980.

NPG director Marvin Sadik, who had expressed his dissatisfaction over the Stuart painting controversy, took a six-month-long sabbatical in January 1981. He announced his retirement from the museum in July.

Expanding the collection

Even as the Stuarts controversy occupied the attention of the press, the National Portrait Gallery continued to expand its collection. In April 1979, it obtained five other portraits by Gilbert Stuart. These five paintings — of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Adams, and James Madison — were known as the Gibbs-Coolidge set. The portraits were donated by the Coolidge family of Boston (without controversy). In December, the museum obtained a bust of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull (which may have been sculpted from the portrait which was later used for the $10 bill) and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Representative Fisher Ames from the Henry Cabot Lodge family in Massachusetts. The following April, Varina Webb Stewart and Joel A.H. Webb presented important portraits of Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina Howell Davis, to the National Portrait Gallery. (Stewart and Webb were the Davis' great-grandchildren.) In 1980, the museum obtained (through purchase and loan) a number of works by graphic artist Howard Chandler Christy for exhibit. Works displayed ranged from his "Christy girl" recruiting posters to history-based works such as Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.

By 1981, the museum had more than 2,000 items in its collection. Two major 19th-century photography collections were added by the museum that year. The first such acquisition was the Frederick Hill Meserve Collection of 5,419 glass negatives produced by the studio of famed Civil War photograph Mathew Brady and his assistants. Using historically accurate chemicals, paper, and techniques, prints were made of the negatives and the prints placed on rotating display. The Washington Post later described the importance of the acquisition by saying it made the NPG the "epicenter" for Brady scholarship. Later that year, 5,400 Civil War-era glass negatives produced by photographer Alexander Gardner were also purchased from the Meserve family. This included the famous "cracked-plate" portrait of Abraham Lincoln taken in February 1865, which was the last photographic portrait of Lincoln taken before his death in April 1865.

Two major portrait purchases were also made in the early 1980s. One was a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Thomas Jefferson, for which the museum paid $1 million to a private collector. A portion of the purchase price came from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Jefferson's historic plantation home of Monticello. The two parties agreed have the portrait spend time at both locations. The second major purchase was an Edgar Degas portrait of his friend, Mary Cassatt, for which the museum paid $1.3 million.

The museum suffered a major theft in 1984 — although it was not a portrait. On December 31, 1984, a thief pried open a display case and stole four handwritten documents accompanying several portraits of Civil War generals. One of the documents was written and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The remaining three were written and signed by Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade, and George Armstrong Custer. The FBI was contacted and worked with Smithsonian police to investigate the crime. Within two weeks, a historic documents dealer contacted the FBI and said he had been offered the documents for sale. On February 8, 1985, police arrested Norman James Chandler, a part-time mechanic's assistant from Maryland, for the theft. Chandler quickly pleaded guilty. He was sentenced in April 1985 to two years in jail (with all but six months suspended) and two years of probation, and required to pay a $2,000 fine. All four documents were recovered.

The late 1980s saw the collection continue to expand, although there were fewer major additions. One significant acquisition was a nude image — a self-portrait painting by Alice Neel acquired in 1985. It was the National Portrait Gallery's first nude work. Neel was 80 years old when she painted it. Two years later, noted photographer Irving Penn donated 120 platinum prints of fashion and celebrity portraits he produced over the past 50 years.

Two very important daguerreotypes (an early photographic process) were purchased in the 1990s. The first was of African American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, acquired in 1990. It is one of only four daguerreotypes of Douglass known to exist. That year, the number of images in the museum's photography collection reached 8,500 objects. Six years later, the NPG obtained for $115,000 the earliest known daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown, whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry helped to spark the Civil War. The portrait was created by African American photographer Augustus Washington.

Purchasing the Lansdowne portrait

In the fall of 2000, Neil Primrose, 7th Earl of Rosebery, offered to sell Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington to the National Portrait Gallery. The painting was commissioned in April 1796 by Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvania—one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. The 8 by 5 feet (2.4 by 1.5 m) portrait was given as a gift to British Prime Minister William Petty FitzMaurice. FitzMaurice was the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and later became the first Marquess of Lansdowne (hence the name of the portrait). Lansdowne died in 1805, and in 1890 the painting was purchased by the 5th Earl of Rosebery. The Lansdowne portrait was displayed only three times in the United States (although several copies remained in America). On its third trip in 1968, it was exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery, and it remained there on indefinite loan. Lord Rosebery offered to sell the painting for $20 million, a price at the low end of estimates. But the offer came with a deadline of April 1, 2001. A search for a donor, personally led by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, proved fruitless after three months. Worried Smithsonian officials then went public in February 2001 with a plea for a donor to come forth.

On March 13, just two weeks before the sale deadline, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation donated $30 million to buy the Lansdowne portrait. Foundation chairman Fred W. Smith read about failing donor effort in the Wall Street Journal on February 26. Although the Reynolds Foundation generally only made grants in the areas of elder care, cardiovascular research, and journalism, assisting with the Lansdowne purchase fell within the foundation's "special projects" area of responsibility. NPG Director Marc Pachter flew to Nevada to meet with foundation officials on March 3, and the foundation approved the donation the following day. The $30 million donation included $6 million to put the portrait on a national tour for three years (the NPG was closed for renovations until 2006), and $4 million to construct a new area in the Old Patent Office Building to display it. NPG said it would name this display area for Donald W. Reynolds, the media baron who created the foundation.

Post-renovation activities

The National Portrait Gallery closed in January 2000 for a renovation of the Old Patent Office Building. Intended to take two years and cost $42 million, the renovation took seven years and cost $283 million. Inflation, delays in obtaining approval for the renovation design, the addition of a glass canopy over the open courtyard, and other issues led to increases in both time and costs. During this period, most of the NPG's collection went on tour around the United States.

In March 2007, a multi-year study of leadership at eight Smithsonian museums made recommendations about the National Portrait Gallery. The report concluded that the museum needed stronger, more visionary leadership intent on creating a truly national museum. The report also called for "administrative consolidation" of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

After the 2008 presidential election, the National Portrait Gallery obtained graphic artist Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous "Hope" poster of Barack Obama. Obama supporter Tony Podesta and his wife, Heather, donated it to the museum.

Hide/Seek controversy

In November 2010, the National Portrait Gallery hosted a major new exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture". The exhibit focused on depictions of homosexual love through history, and was the first exhibit hosted by a museum of national stature to address the topic. It was also the largest and most expensive exhibit in the NPG's history, and more private donors contributed to it than to any prior NPG exhibit. Included in the 105 pieces in the exhibit was a four-minute, edited version of artist David Wojnarowicz's short silent film A Fire in My Belly. Eleven seconds of the video depicted a crucifix covered in ants.

The exhibit was scheduled to run from October 30, 2010, to February 13, 2011. Within days of its opening, Catholic League president William A. Donohue labeled Fire in My Belly "hate speech," anti-Catholic, and anti-Christian. A spokesperson for Representative John Boehner, incoming Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, called it an "arrogant" abuse of the public trust and a misuse of taxpayer money, although it was funded by private donations.House Majority Leader Representative Eric Cantor threatened to reduce the Smithsonian's budget if the film remained on view. After consulting with National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, co-curator David C. Ward (but not with co-curator Jonathan David Katz), Smithsonian Undersecretary Richard Kurin, and the Smithsonian's government affairs and public relations offices, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered Fire in My Belly removed from the exhibit on November 30.

Clough's decision led to extensive accusations of censorship and claims that the Smithsonian was caving in to pressure from a small group of vocal activists. Smithsonian officials strongly defended the video's removal. "The decision wasn't caving in," said Sullivan. "We don't want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum's and this show's strengths." Kurin expressed the Smithsonian's desire to be responsive to public opinion, but also emphasized the remaining exhibit's importance. "We are sensitive to what the public thinks about our shows and programs," he said. "We stand behind the show. It has strong scholarship with great pieces by artists who are recognized by a whole panoply of experts. It represents a segment of America." On December 13, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the principal sponsors of the exhibit, said it would ask for its $100,000 donation back if the film was not restored. Clough replied, "...the Smithsonian's decision to remove the video was a difficult one and we stand by it." The donation was returned, and the Warhol Foundation ceased to support National Portrait Gallery exhibits. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which donated $10,000 to support the exhibit, also ended all funding for future Smithsonian exhibitions. Both decisions drew criticism from some gay rights supporters, who felt the funding cuts were too draconian in view of the fact that the remainder of the pieces continued to be exhibited.

The controversy lasted through the exhibit's scheduled run. In late January 2011, the Smithsonian Board of Regents unanimously gave Clough a vote of confidence, saying his accomplishments in improving the Smithsonian's administration, finances, governance, and maintenance in the past 19 months far outweighed the damage done by the "Hide/Seek" controversy. Clough admitted, however, that he may have acted too hastily in the matter (although he continued to say he made the right decision), and the regents asked for Smithsonian staff to study the controversy and report back on how to handle such events in the future. Not everyone in the Smithsonian agreed with the regents. The Washington Post reported that some (unnamed) Smithsonian museum directors and curators felt there would be a "chilling effect" from Clough's decision. The Board of Directors of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden wrote an open letter to Clough in which they said they were "deeply troubled by the precedent" to remove the film.

Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition

In 2006, the museum began hosting a triennial, juried contemporary portrait exhibition called the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Named after long time docent and volunteer Virginia Outwin Boochever, this competition is widely regarded as the most prestigious portrait competition in the United States. Artists working in the fields of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and other media are allowed to enter. Works must be created through a face-to-face encounter with the subject. The inaugural competition in 2006 drew more than 4000 entries, from which 51 finalists were chosen. For the 2013 competition the total prize money of $42,000 was awarded to the top eight commended artists, and the winner received $25,000 and a commission to make a portrait for the museum's permanent collection. The subject of the commission is decided jointly by the artist and the NPG curators. The 2006 winner was David Lenz of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. It was the first portrait commissioned of an individual who has not served as a President or First Lady. The 2009 winner, Dave Woody of Fort Collins, Colorado, was commissioned to photograph food pioneer Alice Waters, founder of the Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe, the Edible Schoolyard and champion of the Slow Food movement. The 2013 winner was Bo Gehring of Beacon, New York, who was commissioned to direct a video portrait of jazz musician Esperanza Spalding.

Post-2010 exhibits of note

In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery sponsored a new temporary exhibit, "Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets," which focused on images of great American poets. The NPG collection had grown so large that the exhibit drew its images almost entirely from the museum's own collection.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about National Portrait Gallery (United States).