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National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery Review
Devoted to the intersection of art, biography, and history, this museum has on view hundreds of images of men and women who have shaped U.S. history. There are prints, paintings, photos, and multimedia sculptures of subjects from George Washington to Madonna. This museum shares the National Historic landmark building Old Patent Office with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Built between 1836 and 1863, and praised by Walt Whitman as the "noblest of Washington buildings," this gracious marble edifice is considered one of the country's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture.
The museum has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, starting with Gilbert Stuart's iconic "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington. Interesting perspectives include the plaster cast of Abraham Lincoln's head and hands; political cartoonist Pat Oliphant's sculpture of George H. W. Bush bowling; and Shepard Fairey's red, white, and blue Obama Hope portrait of President Barack Obama.
The American Origins exhibit chronicles the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans, the Founding Fathers, and historic figures through the Industrial Age. Subjects include Benjamin Franklin (the painting, by Joseph Duplessis, is the basis for Franklin's likeness on the $100 bill); Native American diplomat Pocahontas; and Thomas Edison in his workshop.
From a sculpture of 20th-century icon Gertrude Stein to Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe prints, to Madonna's 1985 Time magazine cover, the third-floor gallery of Twentieth-Century Americans offers a vibrant tour of the people who shaped the country and culture of today.
The Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are two different museums within the same building—the art complements the portraits, setting up a rich dialogue between the two.
The elegant covered courtyard has a café and is frequently the site of performances and special events. At the "Portrait Connection" computer kiosks, you can search a database of the gallery's collections. Look up the portrait's subject, and the database can tell you where in the gallery it is and show you an image, even if it's not currently on exhibit.
There are free docent-led tours most weekdays at 11:45, 1, and 2:15, and most Saturdays and Sundays at 11:45, 1:30, and 3:15. Check the website to confirm times. At the Lunder Conservation Center on the third and fourth floors, you can watch conservators preserving and restoring works.
Inspire art appreciation in children through NPG's Open Studio on Friday from 1:30 to 4:30, Portrait Story Days on weekends, and Family Days with art scavenger hunts. All are free; no registration required.
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