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, as is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The two museums are the eponym for the Gallery Place Washington Metro station, located at the corner of F and 7th Streets NW.
As of 2011, the National Portrait Gallery was the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to portraiture. The museum had 65 employees and a $9 million annual budget in 2013. By February 2013, it housed 21,200 works of art, which had been seen by 1,069,932 visitors in 2012.
Portrait addition procedure
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 began to be relaxed in 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, so 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.
Key exhibits and programs of the museum
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. Funds for these commissions are privately raised, and each portrait costs about $150,000 to $200,000.
The museum’s more notable art pieces include:
“Abraham Lincoln” (glass plate, cracked; 1865) by Alexander Gardner
“Alexander Hamilton” (bust, 1789) by John Trumbull
“Beauford Delaney” (1940) by Georgia O’Keeffe
“Benjamin Franklin” (c. 1785) by Joseph Duplessis
“Charlie Chaplin” (1925) by Edward Steichen
“Colin Powell” (2012) by Ron Sherr
“Donald Trump” (photo, 1989) by Michael O’Brien
“Ethel Waters” (1940) by Beauford Delaney
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver” (2009) by David Lenz
“Frederick Douglass” (daguerreotype, 1856) by unknown artist
“George Washington” (unfinished, 1796) by Gilbert Stuart
“Henry Cabot Lodge” (1890) by John Singer Sargent
“Hope” (Barack Obama) (2008) by Shepard Fairey
“Jefferson Davis” (1849) by George Lethbridge Saunders
“John Adams” (1800–1815) by Gilbert Stuart
“John Brown” (daguerreotype, 1846–1847) by Augustus Washington
Lansdowne portrait (George Washington) (1796) by Gilbert Stuart
“Martha Washington” (unfinished, 1796) by Gilbert Stuart
“Mary Cassatt” (1880–1884) by Edgar Degas
“Osceola” (1804–1838) by George Catlin
“Self-Portrait” (1880) by Mary Cassatt
“Self-Portrait” (1880–1881) by Paul Cézanne
“Self-Portrait” (1780–1784) by John Singleton Copley
“Thomas Jefferson” (1805) by Gilbert Stuart
“Varina Howell Davis” (1849) by John Wood Dodge
“Barack Obama” (2018) by Kehinde Wiley
Among the museum’s more prominent collections are:
Alexander Gardner (photography)
Howard Chandler Christy (graphic arts)
Irving Penn (photography)
Mathew Brady (photography)
Time magazine covers (graphic arts)
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 sparked 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.
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.
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.