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The National Portrait Gallery: Off the Mall in Washington, DC

From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

George Washington portrait

George Washington portrait

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Smithsonian complex, but it is not located on the National Mall. It is a short walk from the Mall, located on 8th and F Streets.

The Portrait Gallery offers America's collection of portraits, including famous presidential portraits, Western art, folk art, Civil War portraits, impressionistic portraits, federal portraits, special exhibitions, and contemporary portraiture.

And one of the great things about the National Portrait Gallery is that since it's part of the Smithsonian system, it is free!

Presidential Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery's Presidential Portraits are a must-see for history buffs. It is a great place to take the kids for an up-close and personal view of the presidents of the United States.

The presidents of the United States are presented in both formal and casual styles. As you enter the gallery, you are met with a formidable George Washington, whose large portrait portrays him with grace and dignity. A nearby portrait of Martha Washington depicts a kindly, rosy-cheeked first lady that only makes you wish the portrait had been completed.

Rembrandt Peale painted another portrait of George Washington that is on display in the same gallery. Amazingly, the artist was only 17 at the sitting and so nervous that he begged the presence of his father, Charles Wilson Peale, a renowned artist of his day.

Ike Eisenhower at the National Portrait Gallery

Ike Eisenhower at the National Portrait Gallery

Mixed emotions and perceptions make the presidential portraits an interesting mix of honor, humor, and dignity.

Andrew Jackson seems to be in full costume as Count Dracula. Norman Rockwell's Richard Nixon is an affable, even lovable man. And while I viewed Elaine de Kooning's John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the young man beside me asked, "Who took down the real painting?"

Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears as a dashing character with a touch of over-the-top drama and a shot of warm humor. Theodore Roosevelt seems strong, intelligent, and formidable. Lyndon Baines Johnson, who hated the portrait offered at the National Portrait Gallery, resembles John Wayne, while his wife, Lady Bird's, portrait looks like it had been drawn for a comic book.

The presidential portraits are a surprising and fascinating look at the presidents that might jar with your entrenched view of them. A visit to the National Portrait Gallery is worth it even if you only see the presidents.

De Koonig's JFK

De Koonig's JFK

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Richard Nixon by Norman Roclwell

Richard Nixon by Norman Roclwell

Everyone Loves Portraits

Even little babies love pictures of people. In fact, pictures of people are the favorites of babies, and most of us love to see how other people are presented through art, whether the faces are known or total strangers to us. A portrait hints at the subject's character, the artist's perception of character, or how the subject wishes to be presented to the world.

We view portraits with mixed feelings - a historical character that we abhor seems suddenly human and dignified. A respected figure may come off as pompous or phony.

George Catlin's famous portraits of Western Indians are featured at the National Portrait Gallery. Attempting to portray his subjects as unique, dignified individuals, his paintings are thought, by some, to be racist stereotypes.

When young George Catlin met an Oneida Indian in South Central New York, his terror was quickly turned into friendship by the warmth of the stranger's greeting. This brief encounter may have set the stage for Catlin's life work - the artistic documentation of a vanishing race.

In the 1830's, Catlin traveled through the American West to record indigenous Americans as individual people and attempted to portray their various customs and culture through portraiture.

George Catlin's portrait of Ten-squat-a-way

George Catlin's portrait of Ten-squat-a-way

In addition to the expected portraiture, the National Portrait Gallery also offers gigantic panoramic views of the American West, films, and staff-guided tours. The written explanations beside the portraits offer insights into the history and lives of historical characters.

The National Portrait Gallery is a look at the people of America; the people who built America, the greats as well as folks you've never heard of, the various faces of the US where the unrefined becomes beautiful, and the myriad ways that artists conceive of our people are presented with dignity and respect.

The courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery

The courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery

Visitor Information

Admission to the National Portrait Gallery is free and the museum is open between 11:30 AM and 7:00 PM daily. The cafe in the courtyard on the 1st floor is open year-round from 11:30 AM until 6:00 PM. A gift shop is located in the G Street Lobby.

Easy access is on the G Street entrance and the entire gallery is served by elevators. Wheelchairs are available.

Photography is permitted in the permanent collections, though commercial photography must be arranged ahead of time. Photography is not allowed in the special exhibits or n the Lunden Conservation Center.

The National Portrait Gallery is located near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station on the Red, Yellow, and Green Metro lines.

More information can be found on the National Portrait Gallery's website or by calling 202-633-1000.

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