Not to Be Missed:
These two museums occupy opposite halves of the same building, allowing you to tour both in one visit. All told, it takes anywhere from 2 to 8 hour to tour both, depending on your level of interest.
We suggest starting your tour on the Portrait Gallery’s first floor, with the American Origins exhibit. This series of portraits is arranged by date, starting with pre-Revolutionary War settlers, and Native Americans including Pocahontas. Three of the collection’s 17 rooms are dedicated to Civil War-era photography of Matthew Brady, and these are among the best in the museum.
Next, make your way to the second floor and the America’s Presidents collection, the centerpiece of the Portrait Gallery. One of the first you’ll see is Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington that’s known as The Athenaeum Portrait, from 1796. It’s the basis for the image of Washington found on the US $1 bill. And while most of these portraits are the kind of formal numbers you’d expect, check out Chuck Close’s unique take on Bill Clinton’s head while you’re there.
Beyond America’s Presidents is The Struggle for Justice, dedicated to Americans who have fought for civil rights equality throughout the years. Subjects include Frederick Douglas, Betty Friedan, Cesar Chavez, Leonard Crow Dog, and more.
The second floor also hosts a revolving set of special exhibits on portraiture. On our most recent visit in late 2015, it was Elaine de Koonig’s abstract and figurative portraits, including several of John F. Kennedy.
The Portrait Gallery’s third floor has portraits on 20th Century Americans, covering the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Beyond that, the Bravo! exhibition features portraits of entertainers from John Phillip Sousa to John Wayne; the Champions set is drawn from the sports world, with everyone from Arthur Ashe to Casey Stengel.
Once you’re done with the third floor of the Portrait Gallery, make your way back to the first floor to start a tour of the American Art museum. The first floor exhibits include Experience America and Folk and Self-taught Art. Of the two, the Experience America section is more interesting. This includes art commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, giving funding to everyday and lesser-known artists around the country. The pieces span every genre (and probably a few new ones), and show how many talented artists probably live in every neighborhood in the country.
The second floor of American Art is arranged chronologically, with rooms dedicated to Early America, Western Art, the Civil War, to Impressionism (with several Mary Cassat), the Gilded Age, and Modernism (including Georgia O’Keeffe). Of these, the Western Art collection of Hudson River School art is the best. It starts with Asher Durand’s Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York, then to Frederick Church’s Aurora Borealis and Cotopaxi, Thomas Cole’s The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, before finishing with Albert Bierstadt’s Gates of Yosemite; Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite Valley, and the magnum opus Among the Sierra Nevada, California. There’s also a set of Frederick Remington bronze, The Bronco Buster.
The third floor of American Art is dedicated to post-1940 (i.e., Modern) art. It’s a huge, open space, allowing for works of size to be displayed, including large-format video and image-based works. Our favorite is Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii. It’s a collection of small televisions, arranged in the shape of the United States, each showing film snippets from American cinema. The nearby Megatron Matrix, also by Paik, is a 215-monitor display of disparate video- and audio clips, also mesmerizing.
Both museums are served by a small cafeteria located across an enclosed, tranquil courtyard.