Monday, August 16, 2010

August 15, 2010: Washington - Portrait Gallery

On Sunday I headed down to the National Portrait Gallery. It's in the same building complex as the American Art Museum, so I'd passed through parts of it before, but hadn't spent much time in the exhibits.

There's something about portrait galleries that make me think they're going to be dull - as a whole, historic portrait paintings tend to start looking the same - similar size, pose, mood. And yet a whole gallery of them turned out to be great. They were used more as historic artifacts to tell the story of the development of the US as a country, with the story and significance of each person's portrait explained at some length.

In the collection of presidential portrait, the most interesting was Richard Nixon's. It was possibly the smallest of the paintings - a nice little study by Norman Rockwell, who made him appear to be more mild-mannered than you usually think of him as. But the oddest thing was the positioning; all the other paintings look quite majestic in their large frames, surrounded by pillars and cornices and other architectural finery. But Nixon's portrait hangs on the back of a small wall that divides the room - it has no architectural details, the paint at the bottom is scuffed by shoe marks, and it looks rather lost. Was this deliberate?

In addition to the historic paintings, there were contemporary portraits, which were more diverse and pretty fantastic. A country-wide portrait competition had some great drawings, photos and paintings. There was also a quirky little exhibit of Elvis Presley artwork.

Also on display were lists from various artists' archives - this is a show my sister would want to see. All sorts of lists: shopping lists, price lists, people to forgive lists - no lists to small or strange to be included.

Photos: award for fanciest frame goes to a painting of Ulysses S. Grant by Ole Peter Hansen Billing, 1865; this model of the Statue of Liberty looks all out of scale; "Melons and Morning Glories" 1813 by Raphaelle Peale - a great painting and even more fun now that the pigment of the melon is showing through the smaller squash, making it all ghost-like; Nixon's portrait by Norman Rockwell; artists' lists; third-place competition winner "Dressy Bessy Takes a Nap" by Adam Vinson (really impressive rendering of light, colour, and transparency); beautiful but creepy "Eunice Kennedy Shriver" 2009, by David Lenz (I'm not sure I'd be flattered by the portrayal if I was Eunice)

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