Portraits were among the earliest art works that the Smithsonian acquired in the 1840s, and were displayed alongside other art works at the Institution for the next century. In 1919, interested citizens began active lobbying for a separate gallery devoted to American portraiture. That year, the Smithsonian Institution, through its National Gallery of Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the American Federation of Arts; and the American Mission to Negotiate Peace, endorsed the National Art Commission. Its purpose was to commission American artists to create a pictorial record of World War I with portraits of American and Allied Nations leaders. The resulting twenty portraits 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 the nucleus for what became the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.
Starting in 1921, the National Gallery of Art Commission regularly discussed the not-yet-official National Portrait Gallery, and accepted donations of portraits for its future opening. The US 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 National Portrait Gallery Commission in 1963, which defined two main objectives for the Gallery based on its congressional mandate: acquisition and exhibition of portraits 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. To carry out the first objective, the commission established guidelines for accepting portraits: that works must be the best likeness possible; original portraits from life, if possible; and that all exhibitions of permanent collection portraits should be of Presidents and First Ladies, and subjects who have been dead for at least ten years. Thus, the standards for accepting portraits varied considerably from other galleries. Even today, in every instance, the historical significance of the subject is judged before the artistic merit of the portrait, or the prominence of the artist. In the 1960s and 1970s, the gallery 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. Known for its Hall of Presidents, the Gallery acquired the iconic Lincoln “cracked plate” photograph by Alexander Gardner in 1981, and the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart in 2001.
In 1976, Congress increased the Portrait Gallery's ability to add to its collections when it passed an act allowing it to collect portraits in all media, most notably photography. In 1981, 5,419 glass negatives from the Matthew Brady Studio were acquired as a group from the Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.
For many years, the core of the Gallery’s collections was stored with and shown by the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in the various locations where the National Collection was housed. The first official gallery exhibition was shown in 1965 in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. The gallery moved from the Arts and Industries Building in 1967 to its present location in the historic Patent Office Building, sharing it with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Patent Office Building is a National Historic Landmark. In his original plan for the US Capital, Pierre L'Enfant had designated the site for a national nondenominational church or pantheon of heroes. Praised by Walt Whitman as "the noblest of Washington buildings," it has porticoes modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. The building, designed by architect Robert Mills, is constructed of freestone and sandstone from Virginia and marble and granite from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. A quadrangle built around a central courtyard, the building measures 405 by 274 feet. Construction of the building began in 1836 and was completed in 1867. The Patent Office moved into the building in 1842. From 1847 to 1917, the building also housed various bureaus of the US Department of the Interior. During the Civil War, it was used as a military hospital and barracks for the Rhode Island Militia. In March of 1865, it was the site of President Lincoln's second inaugural ball. A fire in 1877 badly damaged the upper floors of the north and west wings; consequently, much of the third floor was restored in the popular ornamented Victorian style of the time.
After the Patent Office moved out in 1932, the building was occupied by the Civil Service Commission. Although marked for demolition, the building was spared in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with encouragement from early historic preservationists. Congress then gave it to the Smithsonian for use as a permanent home for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. After an extensive restoration from 1964 to 1967, the building was renamed the Fine Arts and Portrait Galleries in 1968, and the galleries officially opened to the public on October 7, 1968. A restaurant opened in the galleries in 1974.
The building was renamed the American Art and Portrait Galleries in 1981, and the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in 2006. In 2000, a six-year renovation of the building began, restoring the Greek Revival building to its original glory and making it a centerpiece of the revitalized downtown district. The completed structure takes full advantage of the building’s many exceptional architectural features, including its porticoes, colonnades, vaulted galleries, and curving double staircase. New features include a 346-seat underground auditorium; a conservation lab and art-storage area, both visible to the public; a café; a shared museum store; and a shared main entrance for both museums on F Street, NW.
- Chronology of the National Portrait Gallery
- Bibliography of the National Portrait Gallery
- Historic Images of the National Portrait Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the National Portrait Gallery
- Additional Records and Collections of the National Portrait Gallery Across the Smithsonian