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

Updated on January 19, 2020
Dolores Monet profile image

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 | Source

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 being part of the Smithsonian system, it is free!

Presidential Portraits at the National Portriat Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery's Presidential Portraits are a must-see for history buffs and 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 | Source

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 | Source
Richard Nixon by Norman Roclwell
Richard Nixon by Norman Roclwell | Source

Everyone Loves Portraits

Even little babies love pictures of people. In fact, people pictures 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 or 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 | Source

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 history and the lives the historical characters.

The National Portrait Gallery is a look at the people of American, 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 | Source

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 til 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 at the National Portrait Gallery's website or by calling 202-633-1000.

Take a Little Tour of the National Portrait Gallery

Location of the National Protrait Gallery

Questions & Answers


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      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        8 years ago from East Coast, United States

        sweetie - thank you! The National Portrait Gallery is not only interesting and instructive but a lot of fun too. As kids love people pictures, this is a great place to take the children.

      • sweetie1 profile image


        8 years ago from India

        I have never been out of India so i dont know much but hubs like these do help me to know what is there is this world. I really liked the potrait of George Washington. This must be a very grand museums.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Cheeky - lucky for all of us, great museums are almost everywhere! Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.

      • Cheeky Girl profile image

        Cassandra Mantis 

        10 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

        Oh I wish I could go here and see these fantastic paintings!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Good to see you, James. I can't believe that I waited all these years to visit the National Portrait gallery myself. I live semi-nearby and it's free!

      • James A Watkins profile image

        James A Watkins 

        10 years ago from Chicago

        Great Hub! I have been to the Portrait Gallery and I agree with you that it is magnificent. Thanks for letting the world know that if they miss this when in DC they have missed a gem.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        ethel, I'd love to see the NPG in London. It must be so full of so much history! Thanks for leaving a comment!

      • ethel smith profile image

        Ethel Smith 

        10 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

        Looks wonderful. I have visited the National Portrait Gallery in London but not for sometime

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Thanks, Tony. Sometimes we easterners take DC for granted. I try to visit at least once a year. There are so many wonderful places to visit!

      • tonymac04 profile image

        Tony McGregor 

        10 years ago from South Africa

        Great Hub and what a fascinating gallery it must be! I would love to visit, but it's a bit far for a Sunday afternoon drive!

        Love and peace


      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Oh my goodness, Don, I would never never do that. I hate to use flash even in my own home. I had a terrible time taking that picture of Nixon, and attempted it several times because of glare. Quite a few of the photos I took were ruined due to ambient light. But thanks for the reminder, a very important point.

      • dusanotes profile image


        10 years ago from Windermere, FL

        As always, Dolores, you did a marvelous job with this one. Question: I didn't know they allowed people to take flash photos of the artwork at the Smithsonian museums. On a painting it degrades the paint or ink - or so I thought. Correct me if I'm wrong. You took a flash photo of Nixon, I can tell because of the highlights on the picture. This is not a criticism, but I need clarification just in case I take some photos there when I go. You could have gotten just as good or better resolution by using a timer on your camera mounted on a tripod. Don White

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        I love DC, just walking around is a real treat and I feel fortunate to have gone there so often. It's easy to stick to the Mall but you can miss a lot. Thanks for stopping by!

      • juneaukid profile image

        Richard Francis Fleck 

        10 years ago from Denver, Colorado

        Thank you very much for this hub--though I've been to D.C. numerous times, I've never gone to the portrait gallery but will once I'm there again.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Frieda - actually they have food and drinks available in the courtyard but they ain't cheap. I'm sure they mean that you can't wander around looking at the art with a salami sandwich in one hand and a Coke in the other.

        I'd love to go to one of those gallery openings with the wine and cheese.

      • Frieda Babbley profile image

        Frieda Babbley 

        10 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

        Lol. It would be loads of fun! Yeah, in the video it said that there are no drinks or food allowed inside. The word "gallery" always makes me want cocktails and ordeuvres. A shame more galleries can't accommodate this desire.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        10 years ago from East Coast, United States

        Paris - I've been to DC many times but just recently visited the Portrait Gallery. I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you for commenting.

        Frieda - what, did I miss something about the drinks? Do you mean booze? That might be fun, wandering around looking at the beautiful portraits, martini in hand.

        I love museums. They can be exhausting, what with all that intense looking. There is so much to think about. I love that the Smithsonian museums are free. We've gone to many of them, especially when the kids were young. But I must admit I became a bit tired of the Air and Space Museum. The boys loved it and always wanted to go back.

        Thanks for stopping by, Frieda.

      • Frieda Babbley profile image

        Frieda Babbley 

        10 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

        Can you imagine going to school near here, or living near here? I hope all those who do take advantage of touring many times. It sucks that you can't drink in there though. I hope they have drinking fountains. Great article. There are so many awesome museums out there, unfortunately I don't know about and haven't been to most of them. But I have to say the ones here in St. Louis are visited by us quite often!

      • Living In Paris profile image

        Living In Paris 

        10 years ago

        The National Portrait Gallery is my absolute favorite of all the Smithsonian museums in DC. I love the 20th Century Americans exhibition, and I love hanging out in the Kogod Courtyard.


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