A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. (Learning from Exhibitions)

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, February 2002 | Go to article overview

A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. (Learning from Exhibitions)


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


Imagine an exhibition that presents the work of dozens of fine artists from throughout history. Imagine an exhibition that chronicles 75 of America's foremost citizens from colonial times right up to the present, Imagine an exhibition that superbly combines the history of art with the history of America. Such an exhibition is A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian Institution museum, was chartered by the United States Congress in 1962 with a mission to collect and present portraits that depict Americans of national significance from throughout history. The collection now consists of more than 18,500 portraits, of which more than 1,000 are paintings. By its diversity, scope, quality and scale, this collection of images of Americans whose accomplishments have shaped our history and culture is unique, and is a national treasure.

This distinctive presentation was made possible, in part, by the fact that the facility that houses the National Portrait Gallery has been completely closed and emptied of its vast art collection in order to renovate and refurbish this historic structure. The museum is scheduled to reopen in 2004.

The Greek Revival building, which dates from 1867, is the Old Patent Office Building that later housed the Civil Service Commission until it was slated for demolition in 1953 in order to construct a parking garage. Fortunately, following a few years of debate and politicking, this architectural landmark was spared the wrecking ball and was transferred to the Smithsonian for use as a National Portrait Gallery. The long anticipated Gallery finally opened to the public in 1968.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share these paintings," says National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter. "We have newer assembled and toured an exhibition that includes so much of the best of our collection because many have been on permanent display." These paintings represent "people whose talent, intellect or sheer force of will helped shape our unique culture."

According to the organizing curators, the paintings were selected primarily because of the artistic quality of the works themselves. Even so, the list of individuals whose portraits are featured reads like a "Who's Who" of great American statesmen, writers, entertainers, educators and scientists, including George Washington, Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Singleton Copley, Henry Clay, Mary Cassatt, Henry James, Marianne Moore, John Singer Sargent, George Washington Carver, John Updike and Michael Jackson.

Among the numerous notable artists are Gilbert Stuart, Edgar Degas, Augustus John, Thomas Eakins, Marguerite Zorach, Thomas Hart Benton, Jamie Wyeth, Alice Neel, Alex Katz and Andy Warhol.

As a subject, portraiture has a distinguished history and place in nearly every culture and civilization from ancient times through to the present. Representations of a man or woman's image have been produced in every available media and in the widest variety of styles. But just as no two persons are alike in every way, so too, the style of each artist also is unique, and the choice of medium would have a decided effect on the execution and final design of a likeness.

The purposes of a portrait are equally as varied. A portrait can provide a visual record or document of an individual at one or many points in his or her life. Today, because of photography, we are accustomed to having numerous portraits created over a lifetime to preserve the image of one at birth, baptism, school years, graduation, religious events, wedding, family gatherings, etc. A painted portrait, however, especially of the quality or size in this exhibition was a rarity even for some of the famous or well-to-do. Thus, a fine likeness, especially by a noted artist, worthy of preservation, assures the sitter some degree of fame or immortality. …

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