Celebrating Fifty Years

In 1962, the National Portrait Gallery was authorized by an act of Congress with the mission to exhibit and promote the study of “portraiture and statuary depicting men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States and of the artists who created such portraiture and statuary.” Six years later, during the tumultuous year of 1968, the National Portrait Gallery opened its doors in the Old Patent Office Building, sharing the space with the National Collection of Fine Arts (since renamed the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

The Old Patent Office Building (now the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture) was called by the poet Walt Whitman “the noblest of all buildings in Washington.” It remains one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the country. The United States government originally conceived of the building as a place to issue patents for inventors seeking rights to their inventions, and to store and display the scale models that accompanied patent applications. President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone in 1836 and construction continued for another thirty-two years, with the building being completed in 1868. The building began operations in 1842, while still in the midst of construction. In addition to housing the Patent Office, the large public building had a variety of other purposes. During the Civil War, it served as a military barracks and a hospital. Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, and Walt Whitman both volunteered here as nurses. Beginning in 1865, the second floor also housed the United States Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Whitman worked there as a clerk and was fired after six months when his “Blue Book”—a heavily revised copy of his collection of poems The Leaves of Grass—was found on his desk. The Patent Office was also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in 1865. Almost a century later, after this long and illustrious history, Congress marked the building for demolition in the 1950s to make room for a parking lot. But due to the efforts of preservationists, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Old Patent Office Building was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958.

Appropriately, this richly historical building houses our museum, which also recounts national history, but through a combination of biography and visual arts. The building’s original purpose and subsequent uses attest to different aspects of American identity through time, from the importance of invention as a driving social force to our twentieth-century worship of cars and love of convenience. And on October 5, 1968, the National Portrait Gallery held a gala opening, with guests including District of Columbia Mayor Walter Washington, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. As a new Smithsonian entity, the museum did not yet have an established collection. Accordingly, Charles Nagel (1899–1992), who served as the first director of the museum from 1964 to 1969, primarily relied on the generosity of donors when he set out to acquire works.

Building our collection was a daunting task then, but today the Portrait Gallery holds more than twenty-two thousand objects. Encompassing paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and media art, the museum’s portraits represent prominent individuals who have influenced the life and culture of American society. Following our Congressional mandate, art historians and historians evaluate each potential acquisition to determine which works of art best represent nationally significant sitters. At the core of the Portrait Gallery is the collection of presidential portraits, which is the only full collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, and the only one that is available to the public year around. Our Frederick Hill Meserve Collection, acquired in 1981, includes over 5,400 nineteenth-century glass-plate negatives from the studios of Mathew Brady, as well as the so-called “cracked-plate” Lincoln, part of a series of portraits made by Alexander Gardner a mere two months before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This acquisition was made possible, in part, by a change in the museum’s by-laws in 1976 that allowed photographs to enter the museum’s permanent collection. A more recent change, in 2001, permitted the Portrait Gallery to add living sitters to its collection, rather than waiting until a decade after a subject’s death. With each new acquisition, the Portrait Gallery seeks to convey the multi-faceted nature of American history, including those who shape it in the present.

The building itself has also undergone some changes. In 2000 it closed for a six-and-a-half-year renovation that made way for new gallery spaces as well as the glass-covered Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, which has become a meeting spot for Washingtonians and out-of-towners alike. Interactive programming such as our Family Days, “IDENTIFY: Performance Art as Portraiture,” and the museum’s after 5:00 “REMIX,” as well as larger Smithsonian partnered programs take full advantage of the courtyard’s beautiful canopied space. While the historic Great Hall is often the chosen venue for more intimate programming, some artists (including IDENTIFY artists) have elected to respond to the architecture and history of the space. 

As we wrap up our year of special anniversary exhibitions and programming, we look forward to the next 50 years and continue to expand our collection and embark on new initiatives.  

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