The Tradition of Presidential Portraiture, Explained

The transition of office holders includes the official commissioning of the portrait of the outgoing First Lady and President

Franklin D. Roosevelt by Douglas Granville Chandor, 1945 NPG
Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, 1968 NPG
Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1887 NPG
John Adams by John Trumbull, 1793 NPG
Ulysses S. Grant by Thomas Le Clear, 1880 NPG
John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859 NPG
John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning, 1963 NPG, © Elaine de Kooning Trust
George Bush by Ronald N. Sherr, 1994-1995 NPG
Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown, 1786 NPG
Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey (Temporary) NPG, © Shepard Fairey/

Only two complete collections of official presidential portraits exist—one is held privately by the White House, the other is available to the public at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Portrait Gallery also collects additional presidential portraits as a way to flesh out the life and times of each of the individuals who seeks and gains the office. For instance, the museum holds a stellar collection of George Washington portraits, including one executed by Rembrandt Peale, and the Lansdowne and the Athenaeum portraits both by Gilbert Stuart.

The museum also is the home of major works by renowned artists such as George Peter Alexander Healy and Douglas Granville Chandor, portraying presidents like Abraham Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.

Traditionally, at the end of each presidency, staff and historians work with the White House staff to commission a portrait of the president and the first lady. The museum will receive the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama once they are completed.

(The museum already has seven portraits of the Obamas, but these complement the “official” portraits.)

The Portrait Gallery also makes a custom of recognizing the incoming Chief Executive with a display during the inaugural month of January of a portrait of the President-Elect of the United States. A 1989 portrait of Donald J. Trump by photographer Michael O’ Brien will be put up January 13, 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery to signal the upcoming change in administration. The apple, long a symbol of New York City, signifies the role Mr. Trump played in the city’s revitalization of after the down turn of the 1970s. 

The Tradition of Presidential Portraiture, Explained
Donald J. Trump by Michael O'Brien, 1989 NPG

The exhibition "America’s Presidents" at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery  will be closed February 27 through March 23, 2017.  While the regular gallery space is being refurbished and updated, “America’s Presidents” will be temporarily installed in the west gallery on the second floor through September 4. The exhibition will move back into the newly refreshed gallery spaces and reopen September 22.

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