National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, USA

(1962-Present) Biography

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Portrait of Miss Cassatt
Edgar Degas

245 USD


George Washington
(Lansdowne portrait), 1796

Gilbert Stuart
374 USD

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The National Portrait Gallery is a historic art museum located at 8th and F Streets NW in Washington, D.C., in the United States. Founded in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968, it is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its collections focus on images of famous Americans. The museum is housed in the historic Old Patent Office Building.

The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (with which it shares the building) are the eponym for the Gallery Place Washington Metro station, located across the intersection of F and 7th Streets NW. 

History

Founding of the museum 

The first portrait gallery in the United States was Charles Willson Peale's "American Pantheon" (also known as "Peale's Collection of Portraits of American Patriots"), established in 1796. It closed after two years. In 1859, the National Portrait Gallery in London opened, but few Americans took notice. The idea of a federally owned national portrait gallery can be traced back to 1886, when Robert C. Winthrope, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. Upon his return to the United States, Winthrope began pressing for the establishment of a similar museum in America.

In January 1919, the Smithsonian Institution entered into a cooperative endeavor with the American Federation of Arts and the American Mission to Negotiate Peace to create a National Art Committee. The committee's goal was to commission portraits of famous leaders from the various nations involved in World War I. Among the committee's members were oil company executive Herbert L. Pratt, Ethel Sperry Crocker (an art aficionado and wife of William Henry Crocker, founder of Crocker National Bank), architect Abram Garfield, Mary Williamson Averell (wife of railway executive E. H. Harriman), financier J. P. Morgan, attorney Charles Phelps Taft (brother of President William Howard Taft), steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, and paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. The portraits commissioned went on display in the National Museum of Natural History in May 1921. This formed the nucleus of what would become the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

In 1937, Andrew W. Mellon donated his large collection of classic and modernist art to the United States, which led to the foundation of the National Gallery of Art. The collection included a large number of portraits. Mellon asked that, should a portrait gallery be created, the portraits be transferred to it. David E. Finley, Jr., an attorney and one of Mellon's closest friends, was named the first director of the National Gallery of Art, and he pushed hard over the next several years for the establishment of a portrait gallery.

In 1957, a proposal was made by the federal government to demolish the Old Patent Office Building. After a public outcry and an agreement to save the historic structure, Congress authorized the Smithsonian Institution to use the structure as a museum in March 1958. Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian Art Commission asked the Chancellor of the Smithsonian to appoint a committee to organize a national portrait museum and to plan for the establishment of this museum in the Old Patent Office Building. This committee was created in 1960.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962. The enabling legislation defined its purpose as displaying portraits of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States." The legislation specified, however, that the museum's collection be limited to painting, prints, drawings, and engravings. Despite the Smithsonian's own extensive collection of art and Mellon's collection, there was very little for the National Portrait Gallery to display. "To found a portrait gallery in the 1960s," Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley said, was difficult because "American portraiture has already reached the zenith in price and the nadir in supply." Ripley, whose leadership of the Smithsonian began in 1964, was a strong supporter of the new museum, however. He encouraged the museum's curators to build a collection from scratch based on individual pieces chosen through high-quality scholarship rather than buying complete collections from others. The NPG's collection was slowly built over the next five years through donations and purchases. The museum had little money at this time. Often, it located items it wanted and then asked the owner to simply donate it.

The first NPG exhibit, "Nucleus for a National Collection," went on display in the Arts and Industries Building in 1965 (the bicentennial of James Smithson's birth). The following year, the NPG completed the Catalog of American Portraits, the first inventory of portraiture held by the Smithsonian. The catalog also documented the physical characteristics of each artwork, and its provenance (author, date, ownership, etc.). The museum moved into the Old Patent Office Building with the National Fine Arts Collection in 1966. It opened to the public on October 7, 1968.

Building the collection

The Old Patent Office Building was renovated in 1969 by the architectural firm of Faulkner, Fryer and Vanderpool. The renovation won the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 1970.[10] The following year, the NPG began the National Portrait Survey, an attempt to catalog and photograph all portraits in all formats held by every public and private collection and museum in the country. On July 4, 1973, the NPG opened "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800," the first exhibit at the museum dedicated solely to African Americans. Philanthropist Paul Mellon donated 761 portraits by French-American engraver C.B.J.F. de Saint-Mémin to the museum in 1974.

Congress passed legislation in January 1976 allowing the National Portrait Gallery to collect portraits in media other than graphic arts. This permitted the NPG to began collecting photographs. The Library of Congress had long opposed the move in order to protect its own role in collecting photographs, but NPG Director Marvin Sadik fought hard to have the ban eliminated. The NPG rapidly expanded its photography collection, and in October 1976 established a Department of Photographs. The gallery's first photography exhibit, "Facing the Light: Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes," opened in September 1978. It also continued to build its other collections. In February 1977, the museum acquired an 1880 self-portrait by Mary Cassatt, one of only two painted by her. Eleven months later, the museum acquired a self-portrait by John Singleton Copley. The roundel (a circular canvas), one of only four self-portraits by the celebrated early American artist, was donated to the NPG by the Cafritz Foundation.

In May 1978, Time magazine donated 850 original portraits which had graced its cover between 1928 and 1978. A major exhibit of these pieces debuted in May 1979.

Source: Wikipedia