"That noblest of Washington buildings"—Walt Whitman
It is more than a grand building and more than a great museum. The National Portrait Gallery is a Washington institution. Poet Walt Whitman tended to ailing soldiers billeted here during the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln celebrated his second inaugural in our Great Hall. Red Cross founder Clara Barton walked these halls when she worked as a clerk to the Patent Office commissioner.
It once housed our country’s founding documents and served as home to government offices and public collections. In the 1950s it survived demolition and was reborn as part of the Smithsonian.
Now more than one million visitors come to this National Historic Landmark Building each year to view exhibitions, participate in programs, or attend performances. Washingtonians spend their lunch breaks taking in sun on the 7th Street steps or seeking shelter in the Courtyard on rainy days. Along with the White House and the Capitol, it is one of the most loved structures in the nation’s capital.
The National Portrait Gallery shares this magnificent National Historic Landmark Building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It is one of Washington's oldest public buildings. Begun in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office, it is also among the nation's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. A recent renovation restored its most dramatic architectural features, including skylights, a curving double staircase, porticos, and vaulted galleries illuminated by natural light.
As of 2011, the National Portrait Gallery was the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to portraiture. 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.
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