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MUSEUM GUIDES: THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

A portrait of LL Cool J at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
It’s a portrait. Don’t call it a comeback.

Just a few blocks North of the National Mall is one of the largest collections of portraiture on the planet. The National Portrait Gallery is devoted entirely to portraiture, with the nucleus of its collection in a mid-20th-century donation from Andrew J. Mellon.

It was founded in 1962 and opened in 1968. The National Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, and its mission is “…to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.”

Location: Eighth and F Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

Hours: 11:30-7, closed December 25th

Cost: As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum is free. Donations, however, are accepted.

Nearby Attractions

A great place to start is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which shares a roof with the National Portrait Gallery.

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in D.C. Check out our page on the District of Columbia for guides and information on Monuments, Museums, Galleries and more.

Stained glass in the ceiling of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Stained glass in the ceiling of the National Portrait Gallery

Our Experience

The Obamas’ portraits had been unveiled a few months prior to our visit to D.C., so we were excited to make a pilgrimage. While the museum was busy, the galleries are large and numerous. After a day of walking, we cut some rooms short, skipping some parts entirely. Portraiture is lovely, but once you’ve seen one old, dead white man, you’ve generally got the gist of it.

The museum had numerous other more engaging explorations of portraiture in photography collections and paintings of culturally significant figures, and these smaller galleries were well-curated and impactful.

Know Before You Go

  • There is a large Metro stop located nearby, servicing the Green, Red, and Yellow lines.
  • Entrances are on F and G streets, with an ADA ramp on G street.
  • After its extensive renovation, the Museum experienced an explosion in attendance, so, as with most of D.C., expect crowds.
  • The National Portrait Gallery shares a roof with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The two are joined by an impressive atrium. The two museums are collectively known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
  • The building was originally the U.S. Patent Office, and it’s also very large. The Greek revival building took 31 years to complete.
  • While it’s tempting to cram activities into a single day, there is a great deal to be seen in this single building.
  • While it’s certainly possible to find a parking spot, D.C., as a rule, is better explored on foot, by train or by taxi.
  • Ironically, before the Old Patent Office Building was handed over to the Smithsonian Institution, there was a bill in Congress in 1957 to turn the building into a parking lot.

National Portrait Gallery Official Site

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