Painting a picture of the many influential people throughout America’s history, the National Portrait Gallery is a must-see for pop-culture fans, history buffs and art lovers alike. The gallery uses the visual and performing arts, along with new media, to showcase individuals who have shaped American culture as we know it. From activists to actors and presidents to poets, the museum displays paintings, photographs, sculptures and many other forms of art to honor these people and their influence.
Located at 8th and F Streets NW, the Donald W. Reynolds Center not only hosts the National Portrait Gallery, but it also serves as the space for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The building’s Greek Revival architecture, and it’s contemporary, glass-covered courtyard, make for a memorable mystique and aesthetic appeal.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery has roughly one million visitors per year.
By visiting the National Portrait Gallery, you are visiting with the figures that have shaped culture, art and politics over the vast history of the United States. What individuals have shaped this country more than the men in charge of leading it? The Presidents of the United States, who are forever immortalized in an entire gallery—simply titled “America’s Presidents”—which features the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. The exhibit features multiple images of the 43 presidents (the current president is never included in this gallery) to educate visitors of their commanders-in-chief, like the famous “Landsdowne” portrait of George Washington (painted by Gilbert Stuart), the Alexander Gardner “cracked-plate” portrait of Abraham Lincoln from February 1965 and even caricatured sculptures of Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and more.
Dive even deeper into the history and growth of America with “American Origins, 1600-1900,” a series of 17 galleries arranged in chronological order. You can embark on a visual journey from the first days of contact between Native Americans and European explorers to the end of the Civil War. Using art forms ranging from daguerreotypes (the earliest form of photography) to modern photographic prints, this exhibition gives a fantastic overview of America as it grew from infancy to independence to economic power as the 20th century approached.
“BRAVO!” is a permanent exhibit that takes visitors from the beginnings of modern entertainment in the late 19th century to the present. Sports fans, meanwhile, are drawn to “Champions,” a collection of artifacts, memorabilia, portraits and videos celebrating figures whose athletic achievements have become a part of the American story at large.
The gallery has free admission and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the year except on Dec. 25. Parking is limited in DC, so public transportation is highly recommended. The gallery resides right above the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop, on the Red, Yellow and Green lines. Use the Arena exit at 7th and F streets when departing the station. The DC Circulator bus has several routes that will leave you within short walking distance of the gallery. There is barrier-free access at the G Street entrance, all areas of the museum are served by elevators and wheelchairs are available by inquiring at the Information Desk. Photography is allowed in the permanent collection galleries only.
Conveniently located in the Downtown/Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood, the gallery is located near numerous restaurants and attractions, while the Verizon Center is across the street, if you are in the mood to catch a Washington Wizards or Capitals game. Popular restaurants nearby include Ping Pong Dim Sum, Zengo and Jaleo, among others. The National Mall, which is home to numerous monuments and memorials, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is also a short walk away.
Or, if you’d prefer an even shorter commute (while staying under one roof), a stroll across the Kogod Courtyard brings you to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- Upon first opening in 1968, only individuals that had been deceased for 10 years could be featured in the gallery. This rule has since been abolished.
- The building which houses the gallery, formerly the old Patent Office Building, is located at the exact midpoint between the White House and the U.S. Capitol building.
- President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held on the third floor of the Patent Office Building in 1865.
- The gallery includes two engravings of George Washington that are roughly the size of a fingernail. These were intended to be set into rings.
- Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, worked in the Patent Office Building as a civil servant in the 1850s.