National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art
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HOURS: Daily 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Housed in a stunning space that once served as the U.S. Patent Office, a Civil War hospital, and the site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, these two museums share a square city block surrounding a central courtyard that, during a multimillion-dollar makeover in the 2000s, was enclosed with a striking fishnet glass canopy.
The National Portrait Gallery is known for its exhibit featuring the likenesses of the U.S. presidents, including a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington (which also hangs in the White House and was spirited out of the building before the British set it on fire in 1814) and a standing portrait of Ronald Reagan that, when it was unveiled, elicited the remark from Reagan, “Yep, that’s the old buckaroo.”
Other exhibits include American Origins, featuring the likenesses of hundreds of famous Americans from the colonial era to the Gilded Age, with striking portraits of Benjamin Franklin, a photograph of Sojourner Truth, and a vast collection of daguerreotypes.
The National Portrait Gallery blends into the National Museum of American Art somewhere in the hallways of this vast building; no line defines the change, and only the artwork indicates that you have moved from one to the other. The American Art museum holds the world’s largest collection of American art, including oil and watercolors, sculpture, photography, folk art, crafts, and prints. The museum also includes furniture and decorative arts.
Not to be missed is the bizarre and complex The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly, by James Hampton, a work of assemblage art located in the museum’s folk art gallery. The piece was found in the artist’s garage after he died.
For more traditional items, check out the collection of Western art, including landscapes from members of the Hudson River School and portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition