DC Explorer: National Portrait Gallery

Since the 1960s, The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has told the story of America through over 23,000 artworks depicting the American experience through photographs, portraits, videos and other artworks depicting Americans from Presidents to other important historical figures from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Located just south of Chinatown on 7th, 9th, F and G streets, the collection is housed in the Old Patent Office Building – an architectural treasure that was built from 1836-67 and is steeped in history.

  • The Old Patent Office was used as a hospital during the Civil War – where Clara Barton and Walt Whitman both served as nurses during the war effort.
  • The collection tells the story of American from all backgrounds and walks of life through portraits – paintings, photographs, videos, multi-media, sculpture…
  • The gallery has over 1600 portraits of US Presidents
  • The gallery is connected to The Smithsonian American Art Museum and easily toured together in one trip

As a history buff, I enjoyed taking time to revisit each of the US Presidents and their portraits. The NPG is fairly candid about the history of each president, from their successes and failures as America grew and continuese to strive for a better tomorrow.

Many of the images from The Presidential Gallery are part of our cultural experience – images that are enclosed in history books and documentaries – but to stand in front of the original artwork, sculpture or photograph and gaze into the heart of the portrait evokes a unique historical perspective.

The collection’s most prized piece is arguably famed portraitist Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait of President George Washington. This iconic portrait was painted by Stuart in 1796 – the final year of Washington’s presidency. It is inspired by Washington’s speech to Congress on December 7, 1795.

As I examine the painting, I’m struck by the detail and care taken by Stuart in the backdrop as well as creating a warm and thoughtful image of America’s first president. Washington’s pose is confident and humble – as a father looking over his country and giving his service to it (my interpretation).

Ironically this portrait, one of several of Washington by Stuart, was not in the US until the 1960s. It was commissioned by Marquis of Lansdowne in England, who was instrumental in securing peace between England the newly founded United States. To learn more about the history and importance of this painting click here.

  • Fun fact – there are 146 portraits at The National Portrait Gallery alone, including additional Stuart interpretations, Peales and other portraitists who wanted to honor the ‘Father of the United States’

While each portrait reveals the hopes, burdens and triumphs and tragedies of each president, perhaps the most moving is Abraham Lincoln’s photograph.

I paused as I admired the photograph -this president led our nation through a tragedy of Civil War and also the shifts of technology as railroads and industrialization had begun to play active roles in society. He is one (if not the first president) photographed – leaving his haunting human and caring gaze as an American hero with us today.

The portrait of James Madison as a aged man who has given his life to country and freedom is particularly moving. You can feel the weight of nation building and sacrifice of service – Madison wrote The Bill of Rights and his leadership during the War of 1812 was important to continued unity as a nation.

The gallery also features well known portraits of other founding fathers from Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin…

My battery unfortunately died, but some of my favorite portraits were of Native American tribes by George Catlin – an adventurer who sought to paint the Native American tribes and learn about their culture…click here to learn more..

The gallery is vast and has a collection that both invites you into history and contemplation of our common humanity and connection through art.

To learn more about the collection…click here

Next up – we’ll cross over from the National Portrait Gallery to the adjoining Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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