Tuesday, October 13, 2009

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is a fantastic museum! I had to wait for a long time to visit it, however. I walked past the building in 2005 and 2006, feeling a bit sad that it was closed. When I came to Washington, D.C., in May of 2008, I was thrilled to discover that the National Portrait Gallery was open for visitors. I spent a few hours wandering around the museum and then discovered that I could go to a free drawing class!
I returned to the National Portrait Gallery on October 3rd. While I was there, I wandered over to the folk art exhibit. A wide variety of subjects in a myriad of mediums was on display. The subjects included Navajo people, fish, animals, Coca Cola, and religion, among other subjects. There were paintings done in a primitive style (the perspective was off, which made pathways in the woods appear as if they were headed up to the sky), quilts, dolls, articles of clothing, and wood carvings. One of the more interesting displays was objects that Greg Warmach (known as Mr. Imagination) made from such cast-off items as bottle caps, mirrors, and wood.
My next stop was the 1933-1934 Public Works of Art Project display. I learned that, during these two years, 3,749 artists created 15,663 paintings, murals, sculptures, prints, drawings, and craft works. The suggested subject matter was the vague "American scene." This project was immediately followed by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project.
The paintings that I saw in this exhibit were beautiful views of people, places, and things in many parts of the United States, from New York City to New Mexico. The things being portrayed included street scenes, portraits, animals, farms, workplaces, and sports. Certainly, the poverty of the time was presented in a realistic style. There were pictures of abandoned farms and people in tenements. There were paintings of the beautiful (animals, skylines, etc.) and the ugly (coal mines don't look so beautiful to me). The saddest story for me was Earle Richardson's. He was one of just a few African-American painters who participated in the project. He painted a scene of African-Americans harvesting cotton, titled "Employment of Negroes in Agriculture." When he made the painting in 1934, he was just 22 years old. One year later and far too young, he died.
After going through the 1933-34 exhibit, I then joined a docent tour and viewed the presidential portraits. I saw various portraits of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. I learned from the guide, Randall, that the third floor of the National Portrait Gallery had been the site of Abraham Lincoln's inaugural ball. Today, there is only one piece of the original neo-renaissance tile left. All of the rest are reproductions. I also learned that, by the 1950s, the building was decayed and was almost torn down and replaced by a parking garage! Horrors! President Eisenhower, however, intervened when he saw the magnificent stairway, and the building was saved. In 2000, the building was once again closed for restoration and was reopened in 2006.
Randall said, "You can explore American history through portraits."
We saw portraits of such famous people as Pocahontas, Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Sequoya, Isaac Singer, John Brown, and Barack Obama. One of the more interesting paintings was a self portrait by Alice Neel, done in 1980. She painted herself as a nude, and she didn't hide the fact that she was old and heavy!
I am already looking forward to my next visit to the National Portrait Gallery!

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