In full disclosure The National Portrait Gallery is not exactly off the beaten path in Washington, DC. But, I’m betting you don’t hear as much about the gallery as you do other museums in the city. Case in point. The National Portrait Gallery had 831,000 visits in 2017 while the National Air and Space Museum had 1.6 million visits. (Smithsonian Visitor Statistics) So, yeah, in my book it’s a bit off the beaten path.
Who is This Person?
Have you ever stared at a photo of yourself from 10, 20, 30 (depending on your age) maybe even 40 years ago and barely recognized yourself? To the point of thinking, “Who is this person?” And, not only barely recognize yourself but you find yourself wondering where in the hell did the years go?!
I’ve been doing that a lot lately – staring at old photos – as we are now in the process of unboxing and hanging family photos and treasured portraits in our retirement nest. Side note: It’s a bit silly but I cannot seem to refer to our house as our “retirement home” because that sounds as if we’ve checked in to a facility. So, I’ve decided to refer to our home as our retirement nest and we are currently feathering our nest. The other night I stood and stared at a photo in my hand and thought, “Where did the last 30+ years go?” Life is so fleeting, isn’t it? It’s only through treasured photos that we record our personal history, our stories if you will.
The National Portrait Gallery
The same can be said for a country. It’s only through recorded history and historical photos and portraits that we understand the path – as a nation – the country has taken. The National Portrait Gallery is the ultimate example of this concept. The gallery houses everything from portraits of former presidents to portraits conceived and cut in silhouette before photography came in to being.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. In our continuing quest to explore our neighboring city, Washington, DC, we decided to spend an afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum which are both housed in the same building, different wings. But, it can be said that driving in downtown DC and finding parking is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes we take on the challenge and sometimes we take mass transit. Since we’re new to our neighborhood we decided to find our way via mass transit.
Finding Our Way
We left our house and walked to the nearest main boulevard where we easily caught the Metro Bus, which accepts our Metro (subway) passes. Twenty minutes later the bus stopped right in front of one of the nearby Metro stations. And, twenty minutes after that we were in downtown DC and exited the Metro station directly across the street from The National Portrait Gallery. Perfect.
We entered the gallery, looked at each other, turned around and walked back out. Sustenance in the form of burgers and fries was in order before we took on the three-storied gallery and art museum. So out we went, fed our bellies and upon our return to the gallery we got down to the business of appreciating art, history and culture.
Appreciating Art, History & Culture
As I said, between The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum there are three floors of incredible talent. We started on the second floor, which houses the American President’s Hall, then made our way up to the 3rd floor to see portraits in the 20th Century Americans Hall, then back down to the first floor. There was no method to our madness but because the gallery and the museum are parallel to each other and connect by wings, we managed to roam from one to the other on each floor. It was a good contrast.
The Hall of American Presidents
I’m guessing the Hall of American Presidents is probably the most visited hall in the gallery. Especially, in recent months with the unveiling of President Obama’s portrait. But, there are so many portraits, each one unique and suited to the individual president’s demeanor, and I suppose the essence of his presidency.
I tried not to over photograph while exploring the hall. Instead, I tried to take a few moments with each piece that caught my attention. And, let’s be honest, some presidents just don’t speak to me so while I appreciated the art of the portrait, I didn’t spend the time in close examination.
A Portrait of Willie Gee
This little boy’s portrait – hanging in the president’s hall, I don’t know why – definitely caught my eye. His name was Willie Gee. (1895 – ?) Willie was the son of two former slaves and he was a newsboy in New York City. While delivering papers in an area known for conflict between residents and the police, Willie met the artist Robert Henri who captured Willie as a shy boy, even though quite often newsboys were perceived as being delinquents. I spent several minutes with Willie, wishing I knew more of his story.
An Education in Culture
As we roamed our way between the portrait gallery and the art museum, we came across so many interesting pieces. Every time we visit an art museum I wonder what it must be like to have such skills and talent. And, while I don’t like everything I see, I try to understand the concept of the piece and I try to hold on to the old saying of beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Because let’s face it, we all like what we like.
One of the pieces that I found particularly moving was that of Rosa Parks. I think it speaks for itself.
A whimsical life-size work in silhouette captured the imagination.
And, this grand piano commissioned in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt who wanted to bring more music to the White House.
While The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum may not have quite the notoriety of other Smithsonian Museums, a visit to both is well-worth the time. It isn’t just about the portraits, photos and art pieces, although they are certainly the main attraction. It’s a walk through the history of the country seen through the painter’s brush, the photographer’s lens or the sculptor’s tool. It’s an education in culture.
So, the next time you stare at an old photograph and find yourself wondering where the years have gone, remind yourself it’s your personal history… your story. And, we all have a story to tell.
If You Go
The National Portrait Gallery
8 and F Streets NW
Washington, DC 20001
11:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. daily
Closed December 25
Admission to all Smithsonian Museums is free.
There are lockers available, a cafe with a buffet line and courtyard seating, and a gift shop.
Docent led tours are available.
Restrooms are on each floor.