While Washington, D.C. is awash in Civil War sites and monuments, one place you might not think to add to your list—but is definitely worth a stop—is the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Located on 8th and F Streets, NW (just a couple blocks up from the National Archives or just a couple blocks over from Ford’s Theater), the National Portrait Gallery has plenty of exceptional pieces to satisfy the Civil War tourist. Even the building itself has great Civil War history to it, and the museum even offers a cellphone tour to help explain it to you.
Most notably is that the building was the site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball. Today, the Lincoln Gallery—spacious and beautiful, with high-vaulted ceilings and marbled floors—houses a collection of modern art, which poses a fascinating juxtaposition between old and new.
For those looking for something more traditional, there are galleries devoted specifically to the Civil War. Portraits, busts, and artifacts highlight key people.
But those key people are sprinkled throughout the museum in other places, too, with plenty of space to admire and appreciate and contemplate. The variety and unexpectedness adds to the coolness.
Grant and Lincoln appear throughout the building in several forms, too—in painting and in sculpture—not only for their roles during the war but also for their roles in the presidency.
A special exhibit on the first floor currently offers a look at “Lincoln and his Contemporaries.”
Among the luminaries are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Ward Beecher, Edwin Booth, Samuel Morse, Maggie Mitchell, and P.T. Barnum. The portraits are arranged in a thoughtful and thought-provoking juxtaposition that puts them in conversation with each other as well as with the viewer.
My intent here is to give you just a taste of the treasures you can find if you visit the museum on your own. I’d wanted to check the place out for some time, not even thinking about Civil War history but just because I thought it’d be cool to see. However, it’s one of those places I’d never quite gotten around to. I was so glad I finally made the time. While the Civil War history was a fabulous bonus, the museum is magnificent in its own right and deserves a spot near the top of every tourist’s docket.
National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum is open daily from 11:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m. except on Dec. 25. There’s a café situated in an expansive enclosed courtyard, as well as a museum store. “Photography and videography of personal use is encouraged,” the museum invites.