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Visiting the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Visit with the greatest icons in American history as they come to life through the art of portraiture.
What and where is the National Portrait Gallery?
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. From activists and actors to presidents and poets, the museum displays paintings, photographs and sculptures of the people that have come to define America as we know it.
Located at 8th and F Streets NW, the Portrait Gallery is inside the Donald W. Reynolds Center, which also serves as the space for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Admission is free, and the museum is open from 11:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. every day of the year (except December 25). The building also features the beautiful Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, a quiet place to work or relax with free Wi-Fi and a café featuring sandwiches, salads, coffee and beer.
The easiest way to get to the National Portrait Gallery? Use the Metro’s Red Line, stop at Gallery Place/Chinatown, and you’re a short walk away. The DC Circulator services the neighborhood via the Georgetown-Union Station route, so a trip by bus is convenient as well. Before or after your museum experience, explore Penn Quarter and Chinatown and all of the dining and entertainment options that it offers.
The National Portrait Gallery’s permanent exhibits take comprehensive looks at icons from different segments of U.S. history – The Struggle for Justice focuses on Civil Rights leaders, while Contemporary Americans showcases important figures from the 20th century specifically.
And of course, what individuals have shaped this country more than the presidents in charge of leading it? The Presidents of the United States are forever immortalized in America’s Presidents, the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House.
The exhibit features multiple images of every president (the current commander-in-chief excluded), including the famous “Landsdowne” portrait of George Washington (painted by Gilbert Stuart), the Alexander Gardner “cracked-plate” portrait of Abraham Lincoln and even caricatured sculptures of Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Dive even deeper into the history and growth of the U.S. 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, American Origins gives a fantastic overview of our country as it grew from infancy to independence to economic power as the 20th century approached.
BRAVO! takes visitors from the beginnings of modern entertainment in the late 19th century to the present day. Sports fans will be drawn to Champions, a collection of artifacts, memorabilia, portraits and videos celebrating figures whose athletic achievements have become a part of the American story.
The Gallery also regularly rotates new and exciting exhibits in and out of its halls, meaning there is always something fresh to observe. Check the Gallery’s website for current and upcoming exhibits.
Interested in more Smithsonian museums? Read our guide to Smithsonian Museums to continue your exploration.