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Experience portraiture beyond the frame. Our collections present people of remarkable character and achievement. These Americans—artists, politicians, scientists, inventors, activists, and performers—form our national identity. They help us understand who we are and remind us of what we can aspire to be. Get to know us at the National Portrait Gallery. We look forward to sharing the faces and stories of inspiring Americans with you.
The mission of the National Portrait Gallery is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.
The National Portrait Gallery was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962 with the mission to acquire and display portraits of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States." Today, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery continues to narrate the multi-faceted and ever-changing story of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery presents poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives form our national identity.
As the nation's only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, the "America's Presidents" exhibition lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery's mission to tell the country's history through the individuals who have shaped it. Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" painting of George Washington is the grand introductory image to this exhibition. In 2000, the Portrait Gallery was in danger of losing this painting—which had been on loan since the museum's opening in 1968—when its owner decided to sell it. A generous gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation allowed the "Lansdowne" painting to be purchased as a gift to the nation. "America's Presidents" continues to acquire portraits—including paintings, sculpture, photographs, caricatures, video, and time-based media—of each succeeding president.
Over the years the collections, which were initially restricted to paintings, prints, drawings, and engravings, have grown to over 23,000 items in all media, from daguerreotypes to digital. In the late 1990s, the Portrait Gallery began commissioning portraits of presidents, beginning with George H. W. Bush. In 2006, the Portrait Gallery hosted the first Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, now a prestigious triennial event, which also brings commissioned works into the collection. The 2013 winner was Bo Gehring, whose close-up video and sound portrait of jazz musician Esperanza Spalding draws delight and praise from visitors.