Fact Sheet: "America’s Presidents"

“America’s Presidents” Exhibition Highlights

Since its creation by an Act of Congress in 1962, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has collected portraits of American presidents. The Portrait Gallery has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House and now holds more than 1,600 likenesses of U.S. presidents in its collection. The museum has been open to the public since 1968.

“America’s Presidents” lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery’s mission to tell the American story through the lives of those who have shaped its history and culture. The renovated gallery reopened to the public in September 2017 with a new configuration, bilingual content, new navigational elements and innovative technology. The gallery’s 50-year legacy was also commemorated with the return of Gilbert Stuart’s acclaimed “Lansdowne” portrait of President George Washington following an eighteen-month restoration. The enhanced exhibition space was further complemented by the launch of a new website, “America’s Presidents” publication, and Smartify app, in winter 2017.

Since the transformation of “America’s Presidents,” the gallery has also displayed new acquisitions, including an 1843 daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas (the earliest known photographic likeness of a U.S. President) and the museum’s official commissioned portrait of former President Barack Obama by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley.

Highlights of the “America’s Presidents” gallery also include the iconic portrait of Andrew Jackson (1824) by Thomas Sully and the 1917 casts of Lincoln’s “life masks” (1860 and 1865) that were originally created by Leonard Volk and Clark Mills, respectively.

Portraits of the Presidents

Near the end of a president’s term, curators at the National Portrait Gallery work with the White House to determine which artists to consider for the museum’s official portraits of the president and first lady. Once a final decision is made by the president and first lady, the Portrait Gallery commissions the portraits, and they are added to the museum’s permanent collection upon their completion. The president’s portrait is put on display in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition. The first lady’s portrait is displayed elsewhere in the museum.

The National Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of the president in 1994, with the portrait of George H. W. Bush. In 2006, the museum began commissioning portraits of first ladies. Past commissions are:

Presidents:

  • George H. W. Bush by Ronald N. Sherr (1994–95)
  • Bill Clinton by Nelson Shanks (2005)
  • George W. Bush by Robert A. Anderson (2008)
  • Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley (2018)

First Ladies:

 

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National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website: npg.si.edu. Follow the museum on social media at @NPGFacebookYouTubeInstagramand Tumblr.

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