Renee Sklarew, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C., takes us on a tour of the National Portrait Gallery. Join her!
When visitors come to Washington, I often suggest they include a stop at my favorite art museum located in the busy Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood. This museum is very accessible for people of all ages and interests.
When you first walk in, stop to notice the formidable stance in a new painting of the five American female Supreme Court Justices. You may like to begin your tour on the Portrait Gallery’s first floor, with the American Origins exhibit. It focuses on images of the United States from before its official founding.
Inside the gallery rooms, the portraits are arranged by date, starting with pre–Revolutionary War settlers and American Indians, including Pocahontas.
Daguerrean images of America’s antebellum period are currently on display, taken by one of America’s most famous photographers, Matthew Brady. The photos show the trajectory of Brady’s career; he’s best known for his iconic portraits taken during the Civil War.
Brady’s photos also capture a variety of President Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries, including showman P.T. Barnum, inventor Samuel Morse, and musician Teresa Carreño. You will also find a compelling and topical exhibit featuring poet Sylvia Plath. The collection includes her letters, photographs, and artwork, demonstrating the struggles for equality and opportunity that women like her faced during her lifetime.
Next, make your way to the second floor and the America’s Presidents collection, the centerpiece of the Portrait Gallery. One of the first you’ll see is Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington, known as The Athenaeum Portrait, from 1796. It’s the basis for the image of Washington found on the US $1 bill.
The entrance features images of several of America’s earliest presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Samuel Adams. As you continue to walk through the exhibit, the portraits and stories about each American president culminate in a fascinating series of modern images of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The National Portrait Gallery holds more than 1,600 portraits of U.S. presidents.
President Obama’s portrait was done by American artist Kehinde Wiley, who incorporated flowers in the background that carry special meaning for #44. The chrysanthemums reference the official flower of Chicago; the jasmine evokes Hawaii, where he spent the majority of his childhood; and the African blue lilies stand in for his late Kenyan father. There is usually a line to stop for a photo, so plan accordingly.
Also on the second floor is The Struggle for Justice, dedicated to Americans who have fought for civil rights equality throughout the years. Subjects include Frederick Douglass, Betty Friedan, Cesar Chavez, Leonard Crow Dog, and more. The second floor also hosts a revolving set of special exhibits on portraiture.
The Portrait Gallery’s third floor has portraits on 20th Century Americans, covering the 1950s to the 1990s. Beyond that, the Bravo! exhibition features portraits of entertainers from John Phillip Sousa and Alfred Lunt to John Wayne; the Champions set is drawn from the sports world, with everyone from Arthur Ashe to Casey Stengel. These are installed high above the hallways.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s striking new portrait is located in the 20th Century Americans exhibition on the third floor.
Mrs. Obama selected Amy Sherald, winner of the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, to create her official portrait for the museum. In the same room are other iconic Americans, such as philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, author Toni Morrison, painter Frida Kahlo, singer Michael Jackson, and the first female Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The Courtyard Café offers a casual dining experience year-round where museum-goers can enjoy eating beneath the elegant glass canopy and amid the lush plantings of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. This is a great place to stop for coffee, ice cream, and a light lunch or to do some work on your laptop. Kids love playing in the unique fountains here.
The museum is located at 8th and F Streets NW, Washington, DC 20001 and is open daily from 11:30 a.m. through 7 p.m., except for Christmas Day.
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The pictures of Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and Pocahontas are Public Domain.
All other pictures are courtesy of Renee Sklarew