The Changing Faces of Portraiture

Pietro Annigoni, John F. Kennedy,
watercolor on paper, 1961.
Cover art for TIME magazine's
"Man of the Year," 1961.  January 5, 1962 issue.

The development of the National Portrait Gallery reflects the changing definition of portraiture in the late twentieth century.  Its evolution has helped move the portrait from a static, two-dimensional work of art to a dynamic interpretation of a person's life through the use of film and performance.  This transition in portraiture has come about from aesthetic and curatorial choices by the Portrait Gallery's staff but also has been based on practical considerations necessary for the growth of the NPG.

Portraiture has been linked with national identity seemingly since time immemorial, and not just in the United States.  The foundations of an American portrait gallery go back to the late eighteenth century when Charles Willson Peale took it upon himself to create a gallery of Revolutionary War heroes and other "great men" of his era.  Congress commissioned G.P.A. Healy to paint presidential portraits for the White House in 1857, perhaps due in part to the popularity of the newly-opened British National Portrait Gallery, founded in 1856.   The creation of an "official" American National Portrait Gallery, however, was not legislated by Congress until 1962, and it did not open its doors until 1968.  How it began and developed says much about the way it has helped change the definition of portraiture.

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Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, oil on canvas, 1822.

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In her 1998 essay "Imaging Nationalism in the Cold War: The Foundation of the American National Portrait Gallery," Marcia Pointon states that in the American NPG, "portraiture (was) deployed to maintain a status quo against the threat of revolutionary social transformation in the late 1960s" (359). Her argument suggests that the National Portrait Gallery was officially sanctioned as a response to the growing threat of Soviet power in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  While Pointon's message seems to make sense from a political perspective, it is perhaps more likely that, given the history of an "unofficial" beginning to the American NPG, the true reason it was officially sanctioned in 1962 was a practical one: the perfect space became available.

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In 1953, legislation was introduced in Congress to allow the razing of the Old Patent Office Building at the corner of 7th and F Streets N.W. in order to build a parking garage.  Though in need of renovations, Robert Mills' original neoclassical structure was considered by many to be a national treasure.   Fully completed in 1867, it had originally served as the literal display case for the fruits of American ingenuity.  However, it had also served as a Civil War hospital (in which Walt Whitman volunteered).  In fact, the only other structures in Washington, D.C. older are the White House and the Capitol building, and the Old Patent Office Building takes its place between the two at the cross-axis of the Mall.   Popular petition as well as the efforts of President Eisenhower and David Finley, Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts at the time, helped saved the structure.

The decision, then, for what to do with the building was fairly obvious.  In his original plan for the District of Columbia, Pierre L'Enfant had designated the site at 8th and F for "a pantheon honoring the nation's heroes."  Finley had originally attempted to establish a national portrait gallery in Washington's Hadfield Courthouse building as an extension of the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art.  That effort was thwarted, perhaps fortunately, and when the Old Patent Office Building became available, it seemed the fulfillment of L'Enfant's prophecy.  Yes, the National Portrait Gallery opened in the midst of the Cold War, but given the symbolic power of the building and the history of governmental commission and collection of portraiture, it is no stretch to say that 1968 was the perfect year to open because Finely had found the perfect address.

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The evolution of the National Portrait Gallery clearly mirrors the tenures of its directors, and that evolution explains how and why the NPG has helped re-shape the definition of portraiture.  Finley wooed art historian Charles Nagel out of semi-retirement in 1962 to serve as the first Director of the NPG.   Nagel's architectural background was of monumental importance in the renovation of the structure that was to hold not only the Portrait Gallery but also the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the National Museum of American Art.  The fledgling NPG faced a series of challenges in its attempt to form an identity as a museum. Perhaps the greatest of these was its attempt to form a permanent collection.

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The restored third floor or "The Great Hall" of the Old Patent Office Building.  This was also the site for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Ball.

Nagel was known for the vaguely tongue-in-cheek statement that the National Portrait Gallery had been founded "100 years too late."  While it is true that the Smithsonian Institution previously had been granted groups of portraits from various patrons, such as Andrew Mellon, much of the "notable" portraiture of "notable Americans" belonged to other museums and institutions.  In other words, the NPG did not have access to many famous portraits which, in a sense, belonged in its halls.  It is perhaps because its early collection was limited in this manner that the NPG received little critical acclaim upon its opening. 

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John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776,
oil on canvas, 1787-1820.

For instance, in its attempt to replicate Trumbull's rendition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which belonged to Yale), the NPG commissioned a diorama of the scene which Washington Post critic Paul Richard said "looks as if it were made of handmade Barbie Dolls" (6 Oct., 1968, K1).   All humor and criticism aside, it may at least be said that the diorama was an attempt to circumvent practical limitations (translation: ownership, legislation, and budget) in a creative manner.  So began the process of collecting and displaying non-traditional forms of portraiture, the most notable of which would be film.

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Nagel was succeeded in 1969 by Marvin Sadik, who differed from Nagel in that he did not believe the NPG had been founded too late.  Sadik's tenure was marked in part by the forthright decision to collect works which he felt belonged in the Portrait Gallery.  Of course this occassionally led to tension between the NPG and other institutions, particularly in his attempt to acquire Gilbert Stuart's Aetheneum portraits of George and Martha Washington from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (The NPG faced a Boston mayor in an election year who vowed to keep them in their original facility.)

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Gilbert Stuart, Martha Washington,
oil on canvas, 1796.
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Gilbert Stuart, George Washington ,
oil on canvas, 1796.

However, it also led to cooperation between the NPG and other museums - the Aetheneum portraits are now jointly owned by the NPG and BMFA, and Stuart's portrait of Thomas Jefferson is jointly owned by the Portrait Gallery and Monticello.

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Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Jefferson ,
oil on panel, 1805.

Sadik's tenure also was marked by the relaxation of the Congressional statute that, according to Richard, "decreed that collections of films and photos are the responsbility of the Library of Congress, not of the National Portrait Gallery."  As such Sadik granted Richard's wish that the second director of the NPG "tell us something more about America's past, something more about the people that formed it, something about the way they moved and talked and lived."  This new freedom to display a variety of media would play an important role in the Portrait Gallery's ability to design creative special exhibitions, exhibitions which would allow the NPG to circumvent limitations placed upon it by its permanent collection (though the collection had obviously grown considerably by that time).  The special exhibitions challenged the traditional definition of portraiture and also played an important role in drawing crowds and tourists which might miss the NPG as they explored buildings located directly on the Mall.  For example, one of the notable early exhibitions was titled "Portraits of the American Stage" and coincided with the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center.  Another, less successful, experiment was "living self-portraits," exhibits in which notable living Americans discussed their life experiences with visitors.  Obviously by this point the general rule to display only figures who had been deceased for 10 years was being widely ignored.  While these exhibitions enjoyed varying levels of success, they echoed Richards' recognition that "portraiture (had) changed" from the days of the "National Portrait Galleries in London and Scotland and Ireland."

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TIME "Man of the Year" issue
for January 2, 1928.
Samuel Johnson Woolf, Charles Lindbergh,
charcoal on paper, 1927. 

Yet another significant development under Sadik's leadership was the formal establishment of a lasting relationship with TIME magazine. In 1978 TIME donated over 900 works of art which had been featured on its covers. TIME covers had been featured in an exhibition entitled "Faces of TIME" during Nagel's tenure, but the 1978 gift marked formal ownership of many of the works by the NPG and allowed the museum to move many of the works back and forth between the permanent collection and recurring "Faces of TIME" exhibitions. Twenty years later the recurring exhibitions still continue. Perhaps former NPG historian Mark Pachter explained the impact of TIME's gift on the NPG best when he called it "an opportunity for the National Portrait Gallery to put a little rouge on its cheeks." The Portrait Gallery was now, at least in part, "made up" with images from popular culture.

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Ernest Hamlin Baker, Winston Churchill,
watercolor on board, 1949.
TIME "Man of the Half-Century" issue,
December 19, 1949.

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Alan Fern formally succeeded Sadik in 1982 and continues to seek portraiture outside the realm of grand manner oil painting by encouraging the display of film, caricature, and photography.  In fact, under Fern's direction the NPG enjoyed its most well-attended exhibition to date, a 1991 display of Annie Liebovitz's photography, the only show for which the Portrait Gallery had to issue tickets and limit admission.  Thirty years after the "Barbie doll Declaration of Independence" diorama, the NPG shows roughly eight films monthly and supports its telling of American history not only with oil painting and sculpture but with audio recordings, textual documents, and a host of other media. 

In recent years as much as half its gallery space is filled with exhibitions, such as "Faces of TIME" or curator Wendy Wick Reaves' 1998 Celebrity Caricature in America.  In 1968 Richard wrote that "Today the exhibition of stilted oil paintings with descriptive labels is not enough."  Clearly the Portrait Gallery has responded, thus challenging the traditional definition of portraiture.

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Entrance to one of the first-floor exhibition spaces, in this case featuring the Caricature show.

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Of course the National Portrait Gallery is still a work in progress, and its continued influence on the definition of portraiture remains to be seen. Fern has written that "the National Portrait Gallery Center for Biographical Film . . . will expand the concept of portraiture by bringing film into the Portrait Gallery and linking this information with digitized images of the permanent collection" (Celebrating 150 Years: America's Smithsonian, 40).  Again the NPG crosses boundaries of media and space to tell of the characters it displays, providing a richer and more critical texture to the interpretation of "notable Americans."  However, the NPG is likely to encounter greater ideological challenges in its ability to display a comprehensive metanarrative of American history as told through portraiture.  The notion of identity is challenged by the postmodern world, and the qualifications for becoming a "notable American" have expanded widely since the first commission set standards for "enshrinement" in the NPG according to Congressional statute.  

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View of the Old Patent Office Building from F Street, featuring banners and
posters advertising exhibitions and the permanent colletion.

Perhaps even more challenging is the fact that the NPG will have to face the turn of the century on unfamiliar territory; the Old Patent Office Building is scheduled for renovation in 2000, and as of July 1998 the NPG's temporary home is still unknown. There is a certain irony in that open-endedness, though.   The uncertain future of the NPG reflects the uncertain definition of portraiture in the future.  However, as the museum faces new practical constraints and challenges, the defintion of portraiture is likely also to develop in a new way. The evolution of the two in American culture is inextricably linked.

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