Miguel Covarrubias, Radio
The juxtaposition of various works of art in the National Portrait Gallery emphasizes the fact that the American identity is a contested space. The Portrait Gallery is charged with including notable Americans in its halls, and presumably those figures somehow represent America or the national identity in a larger sense. However, a comparison of those figures and the way they are represented illustrates that each version of the American identity is complex and frequently contradicts one that is next to it.
This complication through juxtaposition happens in a variety of ways in the National Portrat gallery, five of which are outlined in this essay. These ways include questions of artistic medium and style, political and social differences between figures, dialogues with images of the figures outside of the Portrait Gallery, and the variant discourses surrounding public perception of the sitter over time. Since no figure is more recognizeable despite the various ways he is represented, we will begin with George Washington.
Space, Time, and Washington
The second floor of the museum, and in a sense the entire National Portrait Gallery, is centered around Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. No person is displayed more frequently on the Portrait Gallery's walls or in its collections, accurately reflecting Washington's importance in the formation of the American culture. A comparison of five of those images, however, reflects the drastic shift in how Washington's role in American history has been perceived and portrayed. Three of those works are in Portrait Gallery exhibits dedicated to Washington, and two reside elsewhere in the nation's capital. All five, however, demonstrate how portraits of the man moved him in the public memory from a Revolutionary War hero to a God-like figure.
Charles Willson Peale's 1780 mezzotint portrays Washington as Revolutionary War General. Calm and relaxed even amidst the heat of battle, Peale's work is perhaps one of the most "realistic" versions of Washington in that it portrays him as noble and dignified but very specifically human. Stuart's Lansdowne portrait, though also taken from a life sitting during Washington's Presidency, begins to move away from that characterization. True, he is portrayed as a noble statesman perhaps speaking to the citizens in his charge, but he is set in a neoclassical palace which did not exist in the America of his day. The Lansdowne portrait shows the founder of the nation clearly with one foot in his new republic and another in the democratic societies of ancient Greece and Rome. Continuing this progression, Giuseppe Cerrachi's 1816 bust of Washington (after the 1792 original), removes him completely from contemporary America by dressing him in the toga of a Roman Emperor.
Not unlike Horatio Greenough's 1833 statue of Washington, originally commissioned for the Capitol rotunda, Cerrachi's bust makes Washington into an ancient ideal and marks a fundamental shift in the perception of Washington's character and place in American history. Not surprisingly, the process of canonization comes to fruition with Constantino Brumidi's 1865 fresco, The Apotheosis of George Washington, painted on the dome of the Capitol rotunda.
The portraiture of Washington moves him from a calm yet remarkably human hero to the essential American deity. No single image of Washington accurately demonstrates the progression of how portraits of him set the standard for the American identity. The story of Washington's figurative movement through space and time is told completely only by a comparison of the various images.
The Nixon Principle: a Dialogue with Popular Perception
The aforementioned Washington portraits demonstrate how images of him in the Portrait Gallery are in dialogue with images of him elsewhere in the nation's capital. Not far from the Lansdowne portrait, in the Hall of Presidents, hangs Norman Rockwell's 1968 portrait of Richard Nixon. Rockwell's painting is, with his admission, a flattering image of Nixon prior to his first term in office. Given that portrayal, the differences are considerable between its version of the fallen American icon and the general public perception of him.
Perhaps the most enduring images of Richard Nixon in the public memory are those of his figurative exile from public life, explaining the Watergate scandal to the American people via television and leaving the capital in a helicopter following his official resignation. Not unlike the various Washington images, the Rockwell painting establishes a dialogue between itself and other images of Nixon outside the Portrait Gallery, complicating the tendency to perceive Nixon as a symbol of power gone awry. Granted, the Rockwell portrait was completed prior to Nixon's downfall, but the Portrait Gallery's choice to exhibit this image among all others possible demonstrates how comparing various portraits of a figure complicates the ability to view him or her through the narrow lens of a single image.
The Style and Medium Matter: FDR in the NPG
As such, the Caricature exhibition displays how competing visions of a character cross not only stylistic boundaries but cross media boundaries as well, providing and richer and more critical evaluation of the sitter.
Never the two shall meet?
The previous 3 examples show how stylistic and generic concerns complicate a narrow or generalized view of any individual identity. The notion that any essential American identity even exists, however, is challenged most obviously in the NPG by the fact that figures who appear to represent different or conflicting political or social views live next to each other in the galleries. For instance, Ferdinand Petrich's bust of Andrew Jackson in the Hall of Presidents is not far from a gallery dedicated to the portraiture of Native Americans. Given Jackson's role in establishing the Trail of Tears, the underlying dialogue which exists between his likeness and that of Geronimo in the Native American gallery portrays Jackson not as a revered hero but as a murderous villain.
Another example can be found in a section of the Portrait Gallery dedicated to the Performing Arts. An oil portrait of Marian Anderson hangs on the wall opposite the image of Elvis Presley. While it is true that the two musicians differed stylistically (Anderson was an opera singer and Presley was "the King" of rock-and-roll), the display of each is intended to represent important American contributions to the performing arts. However, the unity between them breaks down when one considers that Anderson and Presley also represent diametrically opposed views on race.
Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial after being refused the opportunity to sing in Constitution Hall by the Daughers of the American Revolution is considered a major symbolic moment in the march toward equal rights in the United States. Presley, however, was once quoted as saying "the only thing a black man can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records," despite crediting African-American blues musicians with influencing his musical style. True, Presley and Anderson each contributed significantly to the development of their art forms in America, but placing them next to each other in an art gallery emphasizes that ideologically, perhaps, never the two shall meet.
The questions appear to be obvious: what do these relationships mean? What does it mean that people with radically opposing views are listed side by side as representative of America in some way? What does it mean even to juxtapose iconic figures who represent issues or events that are simply monumentally different from each other though not in conflict? For instance, the second floor of the Portrait Gallery includes a hall dedicated to "notable Americans" of the twentieth century. In one gallery dedicated to 1920s Modernism sits a Jo Davidson sculpture of Gertrude Stein. Across from this gallery is one dedicated to notable World War II figures. Yes, Stein and the war heroes are in separate rooms, but they coexist in the larger "twentieth century" gallery. What does it mean to place Gertrude Stein figuratively across from George C. Marshall? What could they possibly have in common?
At the very least, these sorts of juxtapositions demonstrate the impossibility of essentializing the American identity into a discrete set of values or characteristics. It suggests that there is no distinct or unified American "identity" at all, that there are only individuals whose contributions serve as lines or scenes in the drama that has been the progress of the nation. The tensions between the Portrait Gallery's inhabitants suggests that not only is an essential American identity non-negotiable; it is non-existent.
A Unifying and Democratizing Art
It would seem that this issue of radically opposed views of national identity would be displayed most clearly in the Portrait Gallery's exhibit on the Civil War, located in the Great Hall on the building's third floor. No event in American history more evidently marks the divide between disparate visions of the national identity. The exhibit, however, also marks an important technological advance which considerably influenced the development of portraiture, also affecting visions of what it means to be American.
In 1839, the photograph was introduced into American society, and by 1860 it was developed extensively enough that Matthew Brady was able to use it to provide a visual documentary of the war. Brady's photographs and daguerrotypes complement the collection of paintings, sculptures, caricatures, and written documents in the Civil War exhibit yet augment the collection tremendously in that they are literal representations of the sitters. That is, the photograph, at least for Brady, removes the subject from artistic interpretation and presents the sitter as he or she "really" exists. The effect this achieves when displayed in the context of the Civil War is profound.
Brady's realism highlights the similarities between people despite their ideological differences, particularly by the simple and consistent manner in which he poses them. Brady's portraiture, unlike painting or sculpture, emphasizes the unifying human qualities inherent in each individual. Juxtaposing photographs of Lee and Lincoln illustrates the fact that as souls tested by the trials of leadership and war, they are more similar as American icons than they are different. They represent the idea of an inherent American dignity even in the face of conflict and as such combine to reinforce at least that characteristic of an "American identity."
The relationship between the Lee and Lincoln images highlights what is perhaps the only accurate defintion of the American identity: it is a set of qualities shared by its leaders and citizens. No single person encapsulates all of those qualities, and the only person who comes close (since the qualities are based on him), is Washington, who figuratively is no longer even human.
In Mystic Chords of Memory, Michael Kammen cites Oliver Wendell Holmes' observation that "We live by symbols" (451). When those symbols contradict each other, their messages are frequently challenged, if not shattered completely. Placing figures with different versions of the "American ideal" next to each other complicates the messages of the portraits and undermines the notion that a comprehensive national identity to which any single person can aspire even exists. Comparing contradictory visions of that ideal adds a critical dimension to the frequently reductive quality of portraiture. A dialogue exists between contrasting visions of a sitter about which one is more accurate in its representation; as such the notion of what makes him or her "notable" or "American" becomes contested. The American identity exists not so much in the messages of each portrait in the National Portrait Gallery as it does in the dialogue which exists between them.