National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC was founded by Congress in 1962. Its mission is to tell the story of the people who shaped America, through portraiture.

The gallery houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. I had been several times before, but wanted to see the Obama portraits. Along with the presidential portrait galleries, the museum always features a special exhibition, along with some stunning portraits by some of my favorite artists, including Alice Neel.

Admission is free at The National Portrait Gallery, and all Smithsonian museums in D.C.

Elaine de Kooning, JFK, 1963
Oil on canvas
Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018
Oil on canvas

There was an extraordinary range of beautiful presidential portraits in the gallery, but the low light made it hard to do them justice in photographs. I loved the Elaine de Kooning portrait of JFK (shown above), and I apologize for my terrible photo. While most people have likely seen the Obama portraits, with all the media surrounding them, I found them significantly more spectacular in person. There was a lovely portrait of George W. Bush as well. You can browse the collection on the museum’s website.

Nelson Shanks, The Four Justices, 2012
Oil on canvas

The rectangular-shaped building had multiple levels. At the top of the staircase was this ornately framed portrait of the four female justices.

Amy Sherald, Michelle Obama, 2018
Oil on linen

Michelle Obama’s portrait was roped off in a gallery with other portraits, including a few I’m showing below. Since the lighting was really tricky, my photo is completely off in color. You can compare to the gallery’s version here.

Alice Neel, Self portrait, 1980
Oil on canvas
Kehinde Wiley, LL Cool J, 2006
Oil on canvas

Connected to the National Portrait Gallery is the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), which is dedicated to American Art, the nation’s first collection.

Kerry James Marshall, SOB, SOB, 2003
Acrylic on fiberglass
Jesus Morales, Granite Weaving, 1988
Georgia Gray granite sculpture
Helen Frankenthaler, Small’s Paradise, 1964
Acrylic on canvas
Franz Kline, Merce C, 1961
Oil on canvas
Olga Albizu, Radiante, 1967
Oil on canvas
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #12, 1962
Acrylic, fabric, photogravure and metal on fiberboard
Ed Moses, Untitled, 1986-1987
Oil and acrylic on canvas
Edward Hopper, People in the Sun, 1960
Oil on canvas
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1005-96
Fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood: color, sound, approx. 15 x 40 x 4 ft

Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway illustrates his interpretation of a diverse nation through technology. The installation is constructed of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3750 feet of cable and 5757 feet of multicolored neon tubing. Each state has a video clip representing Paik’s understanding of it. Above is the Kansas part, which Paik represents through the Wizard of Oz. Having grown up there, it was one of my favorites.

2 thoughts on “National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC

  1. Thanks so much for this! It’s especially wonderful at a tome when we can’t get out to see these things in person.

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