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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery, 8th & F Streets NW, Washington, DC
Yesterday, in highlighting the work of the American colonial artist, Gilbert Stuart (the entry below), I made frequent mention of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, DC. And, though I've written about quite a number of major art museums around the world, this one had failed to catch my attention. As something of a portrait artist myself, that should not have been the case. Though a relatively recent addition to the list of important U.S. art museums, the NPG has an outstanding collection of painted portraits of famous Americans from all walks of life by artists from every era, many of whom are what we'd call "household names." Some may even be more famous than the subjects of their paintings.

             The old U.S. Patent Office (left) became the National Portrait Gallery (right)

In 1957 a move was underway to tear down the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. No, it wasn't because everything had already having been invented (as the director of the agency proclaimed in 1885). The patent office had simply outgrown its massive pile of stone on F Street (built in 1837) and moved to a new, larger, state-of-the-art wing of the then new Department of Commerce Building a few blocks away. (It has since moved to an office campus in Alexandria, Virginia.) During the war years the army soaked up every square inch of DC office space, but by the mid-50s, Congress found itself saddled with a 120-year-old, city block three stories tall of heavily remodeled, long since antiquated office space. As so often happens when huge, architectural landmarks become useless for their original purposes, someone decided it would make a good museum. The Smithsonian (America's national attic) inherited a big, gray limestone white elephant.

Even as the NPG has remodeled and renovated, it's holdings continue to outstrip space.
In 1962, the Smithsonian founded the National Portrait Gallery (imitating the British Portrait Gallery in London) and by 1968, managed to prop open its doors to the public. From the start it was a haphazard affair, though the idea had been around for some fifty years. One might expect the Smithsonian to have had enough portraits for two or three such museums, but in fact, that was not the case. By the 1960s, painted portraits were largely seen as antique. It wasn't until 1976 that Congress allowed the museum to collect and display photographic portraits. Even though their hand-me-down building was remodeled in the 1970s, it was still hardly conducive to the makings of a great art museum, especially as compared to the National Gallery of Art just down the street and around the corner.

The NPG courtyard with its new
By the 1980s the museum had over two-thousand items. During the next twenty years their holdings reached five times that (mostly photographic images). Today the gallery houses over 21,000 items. In 2000 the gallery closed for much needed renovation and modernization. Many of their most important works went on tour around the country. The project was suppose to take two years and cost $42-million. In fact, as so often happens in Washington, it was seven years and $283-million later before the museum reopened in 2006. Red tape, inflation, cost over-runs, and a massive courtyard skylight (left) had take their toll on original estimates of time and money. Of course, that kind of money will buy a pretty impressive piece of museum infrastructure, and combined with several equally impressive (and expensive) portrait acquisitions over the years, the NPG now rivals similar museums in London, Australia, Scotland, Sweden, and elsewhere around the world.

Robert Anderson's George W. joins George P.A. Heal's  Lincoln.

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