The origins of the National Portrait Collection date back to 1875. The accommodation allocated for use by Marsh's Library, Ireland's oldest public Library (founded 1701), was no longer required, as Benjemin Lee Guinness had agreed to fund the renovation of the building in St. Patrick's Close. The spacious room, located on the ground floor to the rear of the of the Dargan Wing, thus became available for use by the Gallery. Henry Doyle, Director, proposed that the accommodation should be used to house the National Historic and Portrait Collection. Initially much of the display was made up of prints and engravings, a significant number of which were purchased from the Chaloner Smith Collection in 1887. Over the years the collection has been developed with additions of paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculpture depicting eminent Irish individuals who have contributed to the civic, social, and cultural life of the nation.
Since 1998 the collection has been enhanced by commissioned works which reflect both a more contemporary enagagement with the affairs of the nation and a broader range of subjects. Supported by Irish Life & Permanent, the series of contemporary portraits has also allowed the Gallery to interact with the contemporary artistic community. Among the highlights of the series are Mary and Nicholas Robinson by Mark Shields, Ronnie Delaney by James Hanley, Bono by Louis le Brocquy and Maeve Binchy by Maeve McCarthy. A portrait of Brian Friel by Mick O’Dea, another commissioned work, has been added recently to the collection.
The Portrait Gallery is currently closed due to refurbishment, but a selected number of portraits are currently on show as part of the Masterpieces from the Collection display.