The Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Office of Collections Information and Research, is a national portrait archive maintaining information and images for more than 200,000 portraits of prominent American subjects or by prominent American artists.
What We Collect
Established in 1966, the CAP continues to acquire new material regularly and includes an ongoing survey of portraits held in collections across the country and abroad. Only one-of-a-kind likenesses are recorded, such as paintings, sculpture, drawings, miniatures, silhouettes, and daguerreotypes. Photographs, engravings, etchings, lithographs, and other graphic arts are not included, except those in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection or exhibitions.
The CAP manual files contain a photograph of the portrait, standard catalog data, current ownership, provenance, and biographical sketches of subjects and artists. Often, archival correspondence and primary research material is included as well. A costume study of dated American portraits, from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, is also available for examination and comparison.
Researchers may search the CAP online, or may request assistance with searches by phone or e-mail. Researchers may visit by appointment to examine manual files from Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (closed on federal holidays).
Images are for study purposes only, and any requests for reproductions must be directed to the owners. The CAP reserves the right to protect information provided by the cooperating owners, and information concerning private collections is restricted or kept confidential when requested. CAP personnel cannot undertake extensive research for either individuals or institutions. The staff is not permitted to provide certification of authenticity or to give appraisals. A nominal fee is charged for printing large reports and photocopying archival material.
How you can help
The CAP depends on the assistance of portrait owners, interns, and volunteers.
Include your collection in our national portrait survey by downloading our Portrait Survey Form (PDF)
Apply for a Smithsonian internship with the CAP >>
Phone: (202) 633-8260
For portrait inquiries, please tell us everything you know about the portrait in question, and include an image if at all possible. Please understand that our small staff makes it impossible to help with all requests. Our strength is in one-of-a-kind likenesses such as paintings, drawings, sculptures and daguerreotypes, preferably of identified sitters. If we are able to help, we will do our best to answer your inquiry within two weeks.
The Center of Visual Biography (CVB), as the main academic and scholarly arm of the National Portrait Gallery, serves as an internationally significant incubator of multi-disciplinary ideas around portraiture and biography.
The CVB will foster the engagement and coordination of discussions, new research, and scholarly publications on art, history and portraiture between artists, curators, educators and the wider scholarly community. Aimed at bolstering “intellectual capital” in the development of the NPG’s exhibitions and the expansion of its educational mission, the CVB will not only bring recent scholarship and new ideas from around the United States and abroad to the Smithsonian, but re-contextualize the way we consider visual biography. The CVB will have a wide, inter-disciplinary focus that includes portraiture as a genre, biography as an historical narrative, and global issues of cultural and individual identity.
The Library's collection consists of more than 180,000 books, exhibition catalogues, catalogues raisonné, periodicals, and dissertations that concentrate on American art, history, and biography, with supporting materials on European art. Our holdings also include original artists' books, auction catalogues, ephemera, scrapbooks, and microforms. The National Portrait Gallery shares the library with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (abbreviated as AA/PG). It is a branch of the Smithsonian Libraries system; read more about the AA/PG Library on the Smithsonian Libraries website.
The AA/PG Library is open to public researchers, Smithsonian staff, fellows, and students. The library is a research facility and, with the exception of interlibrary loan items, materials must be used on site. The library participates in interlibrary loan with libraries throughout the world. Contact your neighborhood library for details on how to borrow materials that are unavailable locally. Please note that rare books and special collection items, folios, periodicals, microform, reference, and nonprint materials do not circulate through interlibrary loan.
The AA/PG Library catalog is available through the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) and the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. The holdings of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries are also included in OCLC (WorldCat), an international database of library and research collections.