The National Portrait Gallery's Catalog of American Portraits (CAP) receives public inquiries every day, and the questions are often interesting. Some questions involve research while others are policy-oriented; still others are just seeking general knowledge about museum practice. The following question about our collecting protocols came to us recently. The CAP response follows.Concerning the collection of paintings commonly called the official presidential portraits. . . . Are those paintings part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection? Or are they part of the collection of the White House? Are those paintings maintained and conditioned by the Smithsonian Institution? Are any pieces that are part of the National Portrait Gallery collection ever loaned to the White House?
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery did not open its doors until 1968. By that time, many of the more well-known portraits of the presidents of the United States (as well as portraits of other famous statesmen, soldiers, and American personalities) were already in large collections such as those of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Early NPG curators had their work cut out for them in assembling the presidential collection, and it is wondrous that such a nice collection could have been put together at such a late date in the history of American material culture collecting. The National Portrait Gallery was also fortunate in that the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History all contributed works to establish the NPG collection.
One of the first questions you asked was about the “official presidential portraits.” Those portraits are in the collection of the White House and are maintained by the White House curatorial staff.
Second, yes, there is a friendly relationship between the White House and the NPG; objects have been loaned by each institution to the other. In the early days of NPG, the presidential portraits came from different sources. Some portraits were donated, while others were purchased. Since the time of President George H. W. Bush’s administration, however, the National Portrait Gallery has tried to acquire a portrait of each sitting president while he is in office. “It is up to the individual president to decide on the artist and the circumstances of the sitting, though we may offer advice and suggestions,” says Carolyn Carr, the Portrait Gallery’s deputy director and chief curator. Also, in addition to NPG’s requests to each sitting president for a portrait, NPG now requests portraits of the first lady. “These portraits are funded privately by supporters of each president and first lady,” adds Carr.
Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919, by John Christen Johanson (1876-1964), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of an anonymous donor, 1926