The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is dedicated to the exhibition and study of the portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to American history and culture. The Gallery sponsors a variety of scholarly and public activities for audiences interested in American art and history. NPG holds recordings, videotapes and thousands of films pertaining to objects, people and events.
In 1919, interested citizens began actively lobbying for a national portrait gallery. That year the Smithsonian Institution, through its National Gallery of Art (renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts in 1937), the American Federation of Arts, and the American Mission to Negotiate Peace endorsed the National Arts Commission. Its purpose was to commission American artists to create a pictorial record of World War I through portraits of American and the Allied Nations leaders. The result was twenty portraits which went on exhibit in the Natural History Building in May 1921 and again in 1923 after traveling in exhibitions throughout the United States. These portraits formed an early nucleus for what became the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection. While the Gallery was not officially established at the time, donations of portraits received since 1921 were accepted in preparation for its future opening.
Congress officially established the National Portrait Gallery in 1962 as a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, "a free and public museum for the exhibition and study of portraiture and statuary depicting men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States, and of the artists who created such portraiture and statuary."
The Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed the first NPG Commission in 1963, which elected John Nicholas Brown as its head. The first NPG Commission defined two main objectives for the Gallery based on its congressional mandate: acquisition and exhibition of portrait and statuary of those who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the United States; and establishment of the Gallery as a research center for American biography, iconography, and history.
In the 1960s and 1970s, NPG initiated several programs to carry out its second objective, providing a research center for American biography, iconography, and history, by establishing the Catalog of American Portraits and the Charles Willson Peale Papers.
Between 1964 and 1969, NPG began adding to the small collections of portraits acquired on its behalf by the National Collections of Fine Arts (NCFA). The National Gallery of Art (the name given the gift to the nation of the Andrew Mellon collection in 1937) transferred thirty-four portraits which Mellon had designated for a future national portrait gallery in his 1937 bequest. NCFA and the National Museum of History and Technology (currently National Museum of American History) also transferred portraits from their collections, including works from the original Smithsonian collection.
Congress increased the Museum's ability to add to its collections when it passed an act in 1976 allowing it to collect portraits in all media, most notable photography. In 1981, 5,419 glass negatives from the Matthew Brady Studio were acquired as a group from the Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.
Directors of NPG since the Museum became a separate Smithsonian bureau have been Charles Nagel, 1964-1969; Marvin S. Sadik, 1969-1981; Alan Maxwell Fern, 1982-2000; and Marc Pachter, 2000- .
Revised: August 31, 2002