The nation’s capital is a city loaded with portraits of notable figures in public buildings and museums, plus numerous outdoor equestrian military statues. Less well known is the wealth of fine portraits in Washington’s private collections.
That is now changing, thanks to a fascinating exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), “Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections,” on view through September 5. This eye-opening show features 60 works, dating from 1754 to 2008, owned by individuals living in the national capital area. Most portraits are of Americans and by American artists. In line with tradition, many were commissioned to mark an important event in the sitter’s life.
According to exhibition organizers, Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the NPG, and Ellen Miles, NPG curator emerita of painting and sculpture, Washington owners possess portraits for one of three reasons: they inherited them, they collected them for their historical or artistic merit or they themselves sat for a likeness. In total, the display reflects a wide range of styles and stories that “provide a window into the life of the sitter, the career of the artist and the era in which they lived,” say Carr and Miles. Moreover, “Seen together, they provide a sense of the importance of portraiture as a cultural and artistic expression in America.”
“This exhibition,” observes NPG director Martin E. Sullivan, “demonstrates how portraiture is intertwined with the private sphere of people’s lives. It recognizes, too, the spirit of private collectors who have been instrumental in the formation and vitality of art collections in and around Washington, D.C.”
“Capital Portraits” can be better appreciated in the context of famous art in Washington public collections. The best known is Gilbert Stuart’s likeness of George Washington, acquired for the White House in 1800 and famously rescued by Dolley Madison when the British attacked the capital in 1814. As the curators discuss in the catalog, no other presidential portraits were acquired for the White House until 1857, when Congress gave G.P.A. Healy a hefty commission to paint portraits of John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Since then, portraits of all the presidents have been acquired for the White House.
The National Portrait Gallery has a special mission to assemble portraits of “men and women who have had a significant impact on American history and culture.” The varying quality of these likenesses is due to the fact that the NPG’s decision to honor certain individuals is based on the sitter’s achievements, not the talent of the artist.
Around the capital city, other important public portrait collections are in buildings on Capitol Hill, federal departments and agencies, diverse patriotic and intellectual organizations and a number of museums.
As Carr notes, the current exhibition offers “glimpses into the American portrait tradition,” beginning with British conventions and evolving over the years. While fewer people sit for painted or sculpted likenesses nowadays than in the past, the curators found that living sitters express as much pleasure with the experience as others did in earlier years.
Subjects in the current exhibition include such famous figures as the Marquis de Lafayette, John James Audubon, Mamie Eisenhower and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Among the top artists represented from the Eighteenth Century are John Singleton Copley, Frenchman Jean-Antoine Houdon, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully and Audubon. Artists born in the Nineteenth Century include Hiram Powers, Eastman Johnson, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Born in the Twentieth Century were David Smith, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol and Chuck Close.
The earliest likenesses on view reflect the venerable practice of commissioning paired portraits of husbands and wives. Three years after their marriage, Bostonians Andrew Oliver Jr and Mary Lynde Oliver, both in their early 20s, commissioned itinerant British portraitist Joseph Blackburn to immortalize them in paint. He did so with a flourish consistent with English portraiture tradition: the Olivers stand tall and confident in expressive poses, she slim and elegant and he fashionably corpulent, with the rich fabric of their clothing admirably delineated. Oliver, a man of many talents, compiled a long record of public service, while during his decade in America, Blackburn, in executing numerous quality portraits, left an enduring record of colonial-era personalities.
In keeping with the prevailing custom of the day, male portraits, such as Copley’s painting of Myles Cooper, circa 1780‱785, alluded to the sitter’s achievements. Painted in England after both men had fled the American Revolution, its perceptive pose shows the haughty Cooper resplendent in his Oxford academic robe, consistent with his former presidency of New York’s King’s College, now Columbia University.
A notable find is a little known, much less seen, circa 1822‱823 self-portrait by French émigré and ornithological art genius Audubon. This small likeness, in which the subject’s firmly clenched jaw suggests the determination that contributed to his successes, is one of Audubon’s first efforts in oil painting.
Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of the Sergeant twins of around 1786 captures the charm and innocence of sons of an important New Jersey revolutionary leader. Well over a century later, charismatic teacher and skilled portraitist Henri used vigorous brushstrokes and bold colors in rendering animated views of a 5- and 7-year-old brother and sister.
For youthful appeal and charm, it is hard to beat Johnson’s sensitive portrayal of “Hannah,” circa 1859, a cherubic African American youngster who likely lived near the artist’s residence around 13th and F Streets, NW in Washington. She appeared in another small painting and also in his celebrated “Negro Life in the South,” painted the same year, which became known as “Old Kentucky Home,” even though it was painted behind the Johnson family house. “Hannah” appears to be the black youngster on the right, dressed in blue. In these and other paintings, Johnson, a native of strongly antislavery Maine, “expresses&⁛his] sympathetic views of abolition and his awareness of the burdens of slavery,” says Miles.
In a lighter vein, Charles Bird King, who became a leading Washington portraitist, depicted a playful, happy threesome of Mrs William Seton and her two youngsters, around 1815.
By contrast, French sculptor Houdon’s serious, splendid marble bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, based on a life mask, suggests the enlightened nobility of the nobleman revered in America for his help in the American Revolution. As Miles writes in the catalog, “Houdon’s likenesses have a quality of immediacy resulting not only from his use of life masks for accuracy, but also his method of sculpting the iris of the eye and his tendency to show sitters’ heads turned to one side, their mouths slightly opened.” Other notable marbles on view are by Powers and Paul Manship.
Many of the most spectacular paintings on view are devoted to likenesses of female sitters, starting with Rembrandt Peale’s soigné “Catherine Peabody Gardner” of 1827. The best of the Peale family painters depicted the 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy Salem, Mass., merchant in an ivory-colored satin gown with a red shawl, and with a pensive look. The fabrics are rendered with special precision.
In later portraits, Healy captured the knowing, perhaps flirtatious, look and bejeweled accoutrements of Chicago socialite Delia Spencer Caton Field, 1876; expatriate Cassatt’s animated brushwork suggests the cheerful, pink-cheeked countenance of a young French domestic; Katz conveyed the vivacious optimism and charm of Washington’s multitalented Evelyn Stefansson Nef, 1974; and Warhol turned Polaroid images into a silkscreen on canvas likeness of sultry, elegant DC hostess Ina Ginsburg, 1982, and a serigraph collage featuring the all-knowing look of Sally Quinn, acerbic observer of social behavior in the nation’s capital.
A highlight of the exhibition is Italian French artist Giovanni Boldini’s “Ethel Mary Crocker (Countess de Limur),” 1906, which showcases not only the 15-year-old sitter’s delicate beauty, but the painter’s bravura brushstrokes and the seductive balance he achieved between Impressionist freshness and the lighthearted delicacies of rococo art. Her frilly white dress and the black hat in her lap are rendered with Boldini’s characteristically fluid brushwork.
The only amateur artist represented is Eisenhower, who took up watercolors late in life as a hobby, and around 1952 †the year he was elected president †created a perceptive image of his wife that recalls her sweet demeanor and characteristic bangs.
The most unusual and amusing likeness on view is avant-garde sculptor Smith’s welded iron depiction of an old friend, artist Lucille Corcos, mother of David Levy, former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Smith twisted the painted black metal into a semiabstract suggestion of a seated Corcos reaching for a cylindrical object while balancing on the curve of her spine.
The most recent portraits on view include African American Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 depiction of a strong black man characteristically posed against a highly decorative background, and a typically giant Chuck Close extreme closeup of still waiflike and appealing supermodel Kate Moss, 2007. Victor Arnold Edelstein’s “Judith Martin in Venice,” 2008, shows “Miss Manners” of proper etiquette fame seated at a writing desk littered with books she has written and framed by a model of a vaporetto, her favorite means of transportation during frequent visits to Venice. “The liveliness and vitality of this elegant portrait is a testament to the value of the artist working directly from the model,” notes Carr in the catalog.
Viewed ensemble, the works in “Capital Portraits” reveal largely hidden artistic treasures that demonstrate the many ways paintings and sculpture can capture human likenesses and personalities in compelling fashion. As curators Carr and Miles conclude, “Together these portraits †collected, inherited or commissioned †epitomize the enduring fascination with the human likeness.”
The 198-page exhibition catalog, with illustrated essays by Carr and Miles about portraits in the show and others, contains intriguing insights into the paintings and sculpture and valuable observations about portraiture in general. Published by Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press in cooperation with Bowman & Littlefield Publishers for the National Portrait Gallery, it sells for $49.95, hardcover.
The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, is at Eighth and F Street, NW. For information, www.npg.si.edu or 202-663-1000.