The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is the official keeper of America's heroes. Legislated by a 1962 act of Congress, it occupies a conspicuous place in the literal and figurative construction of American icons in the nation's capital. What may appear to be a "cabinet of curiosities" or a glorified "top 10 list" is actually a space in which the true version of American history and what it means to be a notable American are highly contested.
This site will explain how and why the National Portrait Gallery uses the portraits of famous Americans to construct its particular and "official" history of American culture. It includes three major essays which unpack the implications of linking portraiture with national identity and demonstrate how the Portrait Gallery and the works of art in it reflect cultural challenges contemporary to them in a variety of eras. The essays may be read in any order, and all include images from the Portrait Gallery's collections and exhibitions to provide a visual vocabulary for understanding their respective arguments. The Selective Narrative is a figurative tour of the Portrait Gallery which analyzes its version of American history with special attention paid to why the narrative includes some figures yet excludes others. If you are completely unfamiliar with the physical layout of the NPG, this may be a good place to begin. Case Studies in Comparison evaluates the implications of placing images of prominent figures with seemingly contradictory messages of the American identity next to each other. The Changing Faces of Portraiture examines the history and development of the Portrait Gallery and its impact on defining portraiture as an art form. The small icon excerpted from Gilbert Stuart's Aetheneum portrait of George Washington separates key ideas in the essays and reflects the notion that the "official" history of American culture, like the portrait itself, remains purposefully open and incomplete.