The Faces of the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery presents American history through human stories, highlighting the unique personalities of individuals who shaped our country. Sometimes portraits, especially old ones, can feel stuffy and world away. But whether you take a tour or just wander on your own, you’ll find you are encouraged to think about the expressions, clothing, poses, and backdrops of the paintings and photography. The National Portrait Gallery makes the stories of Americans come alive and easy to imagine what the artists were trying to show.

Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum
Courtyard between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum

What’s on Display at the National Portrait Gallery?

Because this museum covers a few hundred years of history, it is noted that women and people of color are often missing from portrait collections dated before the 1800s. The National Portrait Gallery is very transparent about this and does its best to fill in the hole to tell the most complete story of American history. This makes the museum’s history feel alive, with rotating exhibits that always have a new perspective to share. Below are just a few of my favorite exhibits that you can see at the gallery.

As a local, I have watched a lot of people visit the National Portrait Gallery to see a specific portrait. Notable portraits have drawn large crowds with their debut. If you are visiting to see something specific, don’t hesitate to ask someone at the information desk to help you find it.

Out of Many: Portraits from 1600 to 1900 (permanent): This exhibit always draws me in because it is generally organized by major events in chronological order. Because it is all portraits, it is a fun way to weave through history in a unique way. If you love history but have already done the American History Museum, this is a new and interesting perspective. The exhibit, in particular, is where the gallery notes there are more photos of men, people of wealthy status, and European descent than other groups – particularly before the rise of photography in 1839.

Forces of Nature: Voices that Shaped Environmentalism (Until September 2, 2024): This exhibit highlights politicians, scientists, activists, writers, and artists who have impacted how we see environmental change. What stands out to me is the larger variety of people showcased. Environmental documentaries and news stories often focus on a specific story or achievement, so it is very interesting to see so many different voices in one exhibit.

Are all the President’s Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery?

Yes! You can find a presidential portrait of each American president at the National Portrait Gallery. The presidents are presented in chronological order. You can explore the portraits from the early days of George Washington or begin with more recent history. The style of portraits reflects the time period with more contemporary portraits of President Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

In addition to chronological order, presidents are grouped by time period, including Building the Presidency (1789 – 1829), Democracy and Expansion (1829 – 1861), The Crisis of the Union (1861 – 1901), Social Reform (1901 – 1930), Negotiating World Peace (1930 – 1989), and Contemporary Presidency (1989 – present). You can read a short summary of each time period and each President or listen to short clips of the audio tour on your phone. This is a permanent exhibit.

Photo of portrait of President Obama at the National Portrait Gallery

Tours at the National Portrait Gallery

Daily tours are available at the National Portrait Gallery at 12 and 2:30 pm. These tours are volunteer-led so they might be canceled due to availability. This can be a great way to see the highlights and get deeper dive into some of the portraits. You’ll also find a QR code at the entrance to audio tours available in both English and Spanish. I really enjoyed these tours, which are broken up into bite-sized information about many of the portraits.

Do I Need Tickets?

No, the National Portrait Gallery does not require timed tickets. You can visit this museum and the National Museum of American Art every day except December 25 from 11:30 am to 7 pm.

Getting There

The National Portrait Gallery is right next to the Gallery-Place Chinatown metro stop, serving the red, green, and yellow lines. You can also walk from Metro Center, which serves the red, orange, blue, and silver lines. The museum is connected to the American Art Museum, and it is very easy to navigate both museums in the same visit. They are connected within the museum and by a courtyard that allows outside food.

At a Glance

  • Good for history, Presidental portraits
  • Free
  • 8th and F Streets NW
  • Closest Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown (red, yellow, green) & Metro Center (red, orange, blue, silver)