The National Portrait Gallery began to acquire the likenesses of American presidents shortly after the museum was established by Congress in 1962, and a number of portraits, including paintings of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and John F. Kennedy, were already in the collection when the museum opened to the public in 1968. During the 1970s, portraits of Jimmy Carter, James Monroe, and John Adams were among the several paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures that the museum purchased or received.
In 1980, in partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Portrait Gallery acquired Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum” portraits of George and Martha Washington, and two years later, Thomas Jefferson’s portrait by Stuart entered into the collection as a joint purchase with Monticello. In 2001, through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Portrait Gallery was at long last able to acquire, Stuart’s original “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington from 1796. The painting, which had been on long-term loan to the museum since 1968, is one of the most iconic portraits in American art. Over the past five decades, each of the National Portrait Gallery’s directors has made acquiring presidential images a priority, and consequently, the museum currently holds over 1,600 portraits of U.S. presidents in a variety of mediums.
Beginning with President George H. W. Bush, the National Portrait Gallery initiated a process by which the museum would commission a portrait of each president, and beginning with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, this process expanded to include a commissioned portrait of the first spouse. The Portrait Gallery works closely with the White House to suggest the artists for these artworks and to obtain various approvals. The paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama have been commissioned and will be unveiled in early 2018. Usually, the portraits are created at the end of the president’s final term in office. All are privately funded and are owned by the National Portrait Gallery. The Portrait Gallery hopes to continue this initiative to ensure that the museum acquires formal portraits of every American president and first spouse for its permanent collection.
The White House collection includes a variety of portraits of the presidents of the United States, but their collection is much less accessible because not all of the paintings are on view for the public to see. Therefore, the Portrait Gallery, whose signature installation is America’s Presidents, is the only public collection to feature portraits of all of the U.S. presidents.