The Selective Narrative:  A Figurative Tour of the National Portrait Gallery

In Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Carol Duncan writes that "to control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths" (8).  If this is the case, then a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution is a lesson in American civics as told through portraiture.  The manner in which the NPG tells American history has far-reaching implications in defining national values for Americans.  The Portrait Gallery is an unequivocal instructional space, designed to teach Americans whom to look up to and why.

Which Americans are exhibited in the NPG, then, is obviously of major significance, for they are assumed to be the major contributors to the development of American culture and the founders of the national faith.  Of equal significance are the people who are excluded, particularly for a nation founded on the democratic belief in the rights of each individual citizen.  Although the National Portrait Gallery is certainly a physical space with practical limitations on the number of works it can display, it is also a ritual space provided for the re-enactment of civic rites of passage.  It is not unlike a cathedral, where worshipers stop at various stations of the cross to observe, contemplate, and pay homage to figurative national icons.

Those stations take form as galleries and exhibitions in the Portrait Gallery, and while the particular works displayed change from time to time, the general purpose of the NPG remains remarkably the same.  It is a "free public museum for the exhibition and study of portraiture and statuary depicting men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States, and the artists who created such portraiture and statuary."  However, it is also a museum that creates history by the order and structure in which it displays those men and women.  As such it highlights the achievements of America's notables: inventors, artists, soldiers, politicians, scientists, and leaders in a host of pursuits.  But it also reflects the racism, sexism, class divisions, oppression, and violence in the history of a nation with a remarkably diverse populace.  To tour the National Portrait Gallery is to tour its version of American history, a drama with glory counterbalanced by despair as seen in the faces of its heroes and the lingering images of those excluded, left outside history's gate.  Certainly the Portrait Gallery is a developing and dynamic organization.   This essay, however, is a figurative tour of how the National Portrait Gallery generally displays its permanent collection, with special attention paid to the issue of inclusion.   The National Portrait Gallery's narrative of American history is a balance between the voices of the powerful and previously powerless, and that narrative is influenced greatly by the practical constraits which any museum must consider.

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Floor 1: Hooks, Living Legacies, and Availability

As it stands today, in the late twentieth century, the National Portrait Gallery occupies roughly half of the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., and its galleries span three floors.  The first floor is dedicated primarily to exhibition space of two types: rooms for at least two major shows which rotate and run continuously throughout the year, and spaces for thematic exhibitions derived from the NPG's permanent collection.  Not unlike a shopping mall, the first floor provides the "hook" for drawing visitors into the museum as a whole.   The foyer displays new acquistions hanging not far from the special exhibitions, and the smaller thematic exhibitions, such as "Champions of American Sport" or "The Performing Arts" frequently display living "notable Americans."   Thus the NPG illustrates its willingness to sacrifice its standard of displaying only figures deceased for at least ten years in order to portray American history as a living and developing entity and not merely antiquarian.

The obvious problem with this, however, is that frequently the true legacy of these figures remains to be seen.  This is particularly poignant for figures from the world of sports, whose accomplishments are most often counted in statistical records which may be broken, such as 61 home runs in a single baseball season by Roger Maris, who is part of the exhibition.  However, the larger social impact of these figures also comes into play.  Betsy Graves Reyneau’s Joe Louis Barrow displays one of the first African-American athletes to receive widespread acclaim from white audiences for his accomplishments, punching his way out of the shadows.

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Betsy Graves Reyneau, Joe Louis Barrow, oil on canvas, 1946.

This, however, raises another question.   Nothing in the National Portrait Gallery explicitly states that its collections are exclusively hierarchical and designed to show only Americans who were specifically the best in their fields.  Why, though, is Joe Louis displayed rather than, say, Muhammad Ali?   Certainly Ali’s place as an American icon is as firmly cemented in history as that of Louis.  The answer, in all likelihood, lies in the art.  Which Americans are displayed in the NPG frequently depends upon whose likenesses have been portrayed in museum-quality works in addition to the amount of gallery space available.  Somewhere in the compilation of all of these factors, a figure who has distinguished himself or herself in an area is likely to be excluded.

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Floor 2

. . . And the Fathers That Begat Us

The second floor of the Portrait Gallery is literally and figuratively the center of the museum as a whole, for it is devoted primarily to works from the permanent collection.  Reached via a massive double staircase, the second floor houses the Hall of Presidents and the Gallery of Notable Americans and also contains rooms for smaller thematic exhibitions. 

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Primary entrance to
the second floor.

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Joseph Duplessis, Benjamin Franklin, oil on canvas, c. 1785.

The primary entrance to the second floor is dominated by Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, flanked on one side by Duplessis' Benjamin Franklin and on another side by either Stuart’s Aetheneum portraits of George and Martha Washington or his portrait of Thomas Jefferson.  (All three are jointly owned and shared with other museums, thus the rotation.)  If the display of living Americans on the first floor represents a continually developing American culture, then figures displayed on the second floor are unequivocally the foundation of American society.

The Gallery of Notable Americans begins, for all intents and purposes, with the Hall of Presidents.  The Hall of Presidents is ostensibly an obligatory space based on the assumption that anyone who has made it to the oval office, either via merit or default, deserves a special place in American history, regardless of his presidential legacy.  Every President is represented by at least one portrait (including the current one), though the quality of works varies widely.   Nevertheless, Marvin Sadik writes in A Gallery of Presidents, " . . . if certain of the artists represented here were not equal to their task, it also cannot be overlooked that certain of our presidents were not equal to theirs.  Unfortunately, these two elements do not always coincide in the proper proportions. Yet, if artistic style and presidential substance are not perfectly synchronized with one another here, the truth has not been badly served" (7).

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The Hall of Presidents, featuring G.P.A. Healy's portrait of Lincoln.

It also cannot be overlooked that the executive office has been filled exclusively by a very specific type of American -- white, upper-class men.  While it is true that the Portrait Gallery functions as a mirror reflecting general trends in American culture, it also serves as a filter through which to view those trends.   Directly behind G.P.A. Healy’s 1887 portrait of Abraham Lincoln is a doorway to offices and administrative space, and inscribed on the wall above the doorway is a line from Ecclesiastes, "Let us now praise famous men and the fathers that begat us."

The inscription on its wall marks not only the cultural hegemony inherent in America’s highest office; it also reflects the manner in which America has historically viewed its heroes, with men as the "default" position for fame and honor.  The fact that the quote is obscured from view by the Lincoln portrait suggests that the Portrait Gallery is attempting to re-write even its own previous view of American history.  This act of re-writing a generally more inclusive American history is also marked by the progression of exhibits in the Gallery of Notable Americans.

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Cabinet of Curiosities: The Gallery of Notable Americans

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Primary entrance to the Gallery of Notable Americans

The Gallery of Notable Americans fills two halls and roughly fourteen smaller rooms; it is far and away the largest of the Portrait Gallery’s "permanent" exhibitions, and its subdivisions chronologically and thematically tell American history through portraits of its notable citizens.  The space is formally titled "Galleries of Notable Americans, 1600 to the Modern Day," and at the primary entrance to it stands a large pedestal which reads: "The likenesses shown on the National Portrait Gallery’s second floor are drawn from the museum’s collection of portraits depicting notable Americans from the early colonial era through much of the twentieth century.  In the main corridor can be found images of individuals whose distinctions lay in the formation of American culture.   In the adjacent rooms are thematic and chronological groupings of figures who settled America’s frontiers, shaped political, social, and religious institutions, and fostered technological and scientific advances."  As is frequently the case, the large exhibition’s two halls divide American history into a drama in two acts, pre- and post-Civil War.

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Assimilation and Colonialism

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John Singleton Copley, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1780-84.

It is perhaps fitting that the painting which is most prominently displayed at the "beginning" of the first hall, titled Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860, is a self-portrait by one of the first American masters of portraiture, John Singleton Copley.  The circular Copley portrait serves as a porthole through which to view portraiture in America and reminds the visitor of the filtration process that comes about by both portraying a sitter through an artist’s eyes and interpreting a work of art through the lens of a museum.   Visions of individuals and history are contested and shaped by these varied fields of vision. 
A primary example of this can be seen in a gallery titled "Colonial America," which contains a portrait of Pocahontas, daughter of the Native American tribal leader Powhatan and the woman commonly credited with saving the life of John Smith.  Pocahontas takes her place in the gallery next to portraits of George Berkeley by John Smibert and an engraving of the poet Phillis Wheatley, but Pocahontas’ likeness is a portrait in acculturation: she is portrayed in full English dress, and the inscription beneath her torso tells that she had been "converted and baptized in the Christian faith."

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Pocahontas, oil on canvas, after 1616 (unidentified artist after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe).

Pocahontas’ portrait tells the literal story of European dominance over Native American life in the "new world."  There is a certain irony in the fact that across from the "Colonial America" gallery is another gallery dedicated to "Native Americans" in which the artistic filtration process seems politically motivated in a different manner.

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George Catlin, Buffalo Bill's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, oil on canvas, 1832.  (NMAA)

The "Native Americans" exhibit is much like an anthropolgical study, featuring works of tribal leaders by artists such as George Catlin, whose painting is featured extensively on the other side of the building in the National Museum of American Art.  This gallery, however, is the primary space in the entire NPG dedicated to non-accultured visions of indigenous peoples, and its size and treatment accurately reflect the treatment of those peoples in the formation of "American" culture. 

They are given symbolic attention only, captured for anthropological study, and lumped together as one type of person "notable" in the history of America only inasmuch as they stood in the way of "true" cultural development.  Pocahontas appears almost to be looking down upon the other exhibit; her prominence and supposed contribution to American culture are in her abilities to adapt to colonial ways.

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Forming an American Canon

The remaining galleries in Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860 divide the pre-Civil War period into six other figurative chapters in the writing of early American history.

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John Trumbull, Alexander Hamilton, oil on canvas, 1806.

The Road to Independence, The American Revolution, The Early Republic, The Expanding Frontier, Pre-Civil War Science and Invention, and Industry, Change, and Reform chronicle the early development of the nation with portraits of its traditional heroes (and also actually exceed the period beyond 1860).  They include famous images inscribed into the American memory such as John Trumbull’s Alexander Hamilton or Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Marquis de Lafayette, one of the few sitters included in the NPG who was not an American citizen.  The larger hallway itself contains likenesses of America’s famous early writers, too, such as Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, and Whitman.

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Paintings of Hawthorne, Poe, and Longfellow (l-r)
in Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860.

In short, Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860 may be accurately renamed "Forming an American Canon," for the Americans included in it deviate little from the traditional "big names" of their respective eras.  For instance, Houdon’s bust of Benjamin Franklin rests across from Trumbull and Stuart’s John Jay in The American Revolution, and Abraham Archibald Anderson’s Thomas Alva Edison sits across from Paul Manship’s sculpture of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in Industry, Change, and Reform.

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Jean-Antoine Houdon, Benjamin Franklin,
ceramic, terra-cotta, c. 1778.
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Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull, John Jay, oil on canvas, c. 1783-1808.
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Paul Manship, John D. Rockefeller, plaster.
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Abraham Archibald Anderson, Thomas Alva Edison, oil on canvas, c. 1889.

Notably missing, however, are female figures such as Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson, and their absence does not mark an inattention to the achievements of women on the part of the NPG as much as it marks an inattention to the achievements of women during that portion of America’s history. Carolyn Kinder Carr writes in "The Many Faces of Portraiture" that "Portraiture often functions as a mirror of its time. The choice of individuals to be depicted and the manner in which they are portrayed can often reveal much about the values that a culture holds important" (11).

While this does not suggest that there is an absolute dearth of portraiture featuring women in the early period of American history, it does suggest that the accomplishments of women such as Bradstreet or Dickinson were not recognized to the point that a museum-quality work of either would have been commissioned while each was living. Their absence is a cultural indicator of the times in which they lived. Nevertheless, as Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860 proceeds chronologically, more female figures are included, such as Edward Hughes’ painting of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts of America. Her presence in the latter portion of the galleries is a cultural indicator of an increasing recognition of the achievements of women in American history.

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Edward Hughes, Juliette Gordon Low, oil on canvas, 1887.

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Evolving Styles and Attitudes

The style of portraiture displayed in Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860 is also a cultural indicator in that it displays reasonably mimetic and representational likenesses of sitters through oil painting and sculpture.  Carolyn Kinder Carr notes that "Portraiture was the dominant subject matter in American art from the mid-seventeenth until the mid-nineteenth century, when landscape and genre images became increasingly important" (12).  This stylistic change is displayed in the second larger hallway of the exhibit, entitled An Evolving Culture, which attempts to cover notable Americans from the twentieth century.   (The Civil War is treated in its own exhibition on the third floor mezzanine.)

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Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt,
oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884.

An Evolving Culture marks a movement away from grand manner portraiture and reflects many of the art movements that have occurred since the Civil War, such as the art deco movement or cubism.  As the popularity of traditional portraiture declined, the door became open for experimentation within portraits.  Edgar Degas’ impressionist likeness of Mary Cassatt serves as an example of this and provides an excellent transition between the two halls. 

While it is difficult to view the figures included in An Evolving Culture with the same sort of temporal detachment from those in Forming an American Culture, the dialogue that exists between the two halls says much about the development of American styles. A good example of this is in the comparison between Copley’s self-portrait and Thomas Hart Benton’s 1922 portrait of himself with his wife, Rita.

Benton’s painting is highly stylized and uniquely Modern, with his faceless family in the background. His use of shadow and perspective calls to mind other American painters of his day, such as Grant Wood. Copley, however, certainly echoes European masters of his day. While America Modernism was certainly part of a larger international artistic movement, Benton’s portrait next to Copley’s suggests that, through Modernism, American artists were no longer "forming an American culture." Instead, they had formed a distinctly American style.

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Thomas Hart Benton with his wife Rita, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1922.

An Evolving Culture is divided into roughly seven galleries: The Twenties, Modernism: Literature and the Arts, World War II, The New Deal, Civil Rights and Liberties, Exploration and Discovery, and Jo Davidson Portrait Sculpture. The galleries obviously mark historical movements similar to the manner done in Forming an American Culture, 1760-1860. However, the portraiture presented within them also marks technical and stylistic developments in the world of art, such as the inclusion of photography and posters. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are displayed on the playbills for their films in The Twenties. Ernest Hemingway’s portrait in Modernism: Literature and the Arts is taken from a Man Ray photograph. Thus developments in artistic technology are displayed alongside the portraits of influential Americans in corresponding decades.

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Sven Brasch, Charlie Chaplin,
color linocut poster, 1918.

The Hemingway portrait presents yet another interesting curatorial problem, however, not unlike the earlier Joe Louis-Muhammad Ali analogy. Given the tremendous number of artists who contributed to "literature and the arts" in the 1920s and 1930s, the decision to display some artists and exclude others has as much to do with thematic considerations as it does with practical considerations.  From time to time Man Ray’s Hemingway is replaced with representations of other artists, such as Silvette’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, because the lamps under which the works are displayed may damage them if exposed for too long. Thus, while it may seem inappropriate (to the average viewer) that a major figure is excluded from one of the thematic galleries, that decision may be based upon conservation practices.

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Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway (and son),
gelatin silver pring, 1926.
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David Silvette, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1935.

Of course, exclusion or inclusion may also be motivated by factors which reflect the theme or era represented as well as the manner in which the NPG wants to be defined today.  For instance, no portrait of Zora Neale Hurston is exhibited, which may reflect the fact that no museum-quality work of her exists, despite her influence on literary Modernism. 

However, the NPG frequently juxtaposes photographs of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson, other prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, thus portraying itself as an "inclusive institution," recognizing the contributions of ethnic minorities to the development of American culture.  This element of inclusion is not only curatorial style for the NPG; it is actual policy.  Alan Fern, the third Director of the NPG, has stated that "The United States is a country of considerable racial diverstiy, and the Gallery's collection tries to include important personalities from among the American Indians, black Americans, and Americans of Asian and Hispanic origin, alongside those people whose origins were in the British Isles and northern Europe" (8).

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Edward Weston, Langston Hughes,
gelatin silver print, 1932.

The NPG’s desire to portray itself as an inclusive institution may be demonstrated most obviously in its choice to represent the decade loosely associated with the 1960s as Civil Rights and Liberties.   Marcia Pointon suggests in "Imaging Nationalism in the Cold War: The Formation of the American National Portrait Gallery" that the NPG was created in order to present distinctly democratic icons to the American and international public as a mode of propaganda against Soviet images during the Cold War. Civil Rights and Liberties, however, suggests that the NPG defines the era surrounding the cold war not so much by an American fascination with Sputnik or the Bay of Pigs as with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington. 

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Robert Vickrey, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
tempera on paper, 1963.  From TIME
"Man of the Year" issue, January 3, 1964.

This curatorial decision is an interpretation of American history that marks the progressive recognition of accomplishments by traditionally oppressed ethnic minorities in American society.  In doing so, it balances the fairly ethnically homogenous earlier portion of the Gallery of Notable Americans with a more ethnically inclusive gallery, thus responding to an American public which generally has called for a more inclusive society since long before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

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Space Limitations and Contemporaneity

Undoubtedly one of the primary challenges in establishing a Gallery of Notable Americans based on citizens’ accomplishments is knowing whose legacy is likely to stand the test of time.  This is particularly difficult when displaying living Americans and when establishing smaller chronological galleries.  Which living Americans are to be included and at what chronological period should the history be stopped?  Those questions are answered, once again, partially by practical considerations for the National Portrait Gallery.  Only so much physical space remains beyond Civil Rights and Liberties and Exploration and Discovery; in essence, the NPG’s version of American history as told through the Gallery of Notable Americans lasts until approximately 1970.  As such the NPG spares itself from the burden of measuring the "recent" present against more than 200 years of American culture.  Inevitably it also spares itself from the social and political consequences of attempting to write history from contemporary events.   However, even though it may be trite and repetitive to say that history is constantly being created and challenged, the Gallery of Notable Americans specifically reinforces that view.  Its version of American history marks that the notion of the ideal American, specifically as based on gender and ethnicity, is highly contested.   Its galleries are a history of political, intellectual, commercial, racial, social, and technological development and strife as displayed through the faces of prominent Americans.  The NPG’s version of history is a cacophony of voices – faces and eras – frequently discordant yet occasionally in concert with each other.   For all its limitations, the Gallery of Notable Americans truly is a display of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States."  It is also a display of the conflicts which exist between them.

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Floor 3: A Model Hall

Excluded from the second floor galleries is the NPG’s version of the Civil War.  This portion of American history receives special treatment as an exhibition of its own on the third floor, mezzanine level.   The third floor is reached via another double staircase and was once the display area for models of inventions which were granted patents.

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Pediment above the primary entrance to the
third floor of the National Portrait Gallery.

As such it is the hall for the display of American ingenuity, both past and present. It was also the site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball, so it is perhaps fitting that an exhibit to the great trial which defined his presidency sits in a space which once highlighted his living achievements.  However, what is most obviously unique about the Civil War gallery as compared with the others in the NPG is its separation and its sense of suspended time.  Unlike the Gallery of Notable Americans, which displays a progression of developments in American culture, the Civil War exhibit is literally and figuratively detached in the NPG’s version of American history.  It is an internal monologue in the drama of a nation with a fractured identity, at war with itself.  Though it may be highly subjective to say so, the Civil War gallery displays portraits of figures whose eyes blaze with ferocity and extremes of emotion the likes of which are seen in few other places in the entire Portrait Gallery.

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Ole Peter Hansen Balling, John Brown,
oil on canvas, c. 1859.
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G.P.A. Healy, John Calhoun,
oil on canvas, c. 1845.
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G.P.A. Healy, William Tecumseh Sherman,
oil on canvas, 1866.
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Alexander Gardner, Abraham Lincoln,
albumen silver print, 1865.

John Brown and Frederick Douglass glare at John Calhoun and the Confederacy.  G.P.A. Healy’s bare-headed Sherman displays an anti-Napoleanic general, a figure who appears disgusted by the pomp and circumstance of his uniform yet willing and personally obligated to wear it in defense of the Union’s preservation.  Alexander Gardner’s cracked plate photograph of Lincoln, taken four days before his assassination, marks the division of the nation and the exhaustion of its figurative center.

The gallery is also one of few which includes, fittingly, portraits of slaves and former slaves, such as Douglass or Sojourner Truth.  Fewer issues or events in American history more thoroughly tested the loyalties of the nation’s citizens as the Civil War.   The Civil War gallery, perhaps more so than any other exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery, displays the fervent belief in and sacrifices made to a set of ideals as seen on the faces of those who believed in them.

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Frederick Douglass, daguerreotype,
c. 1850 (unidentified photographer).

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The Unfolding Drama

Carolyn Kinder Carr’s statement that "Portraiture often serves as a mirror for its time" asserts the belief that a portrait’s formal characteristics serve as a lasting record of the age in which the sitter and artist lived.  If this is the case, then the National Portrait Gallery is a sort of hall of mirrors in which Americans are expected to see a bit of themselves inside the face of each notable American.  The portraits, however, are skewed and necessarily influenced by the Portrait Gallery’s interpretation of the work of art and of the person displayed.  Thus the NPG is not unlike a circus house of mirrors in which each viewer’s reflection is based upon how the mirror has been manipulated.  

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The Victorian-style third floor, featuring old patent display cases and profile images of prominent American inventors, such as Franklin, Whitney, and Jefferson.

There is no doubt that the National Portrait Gallery has a monumental and seemingly impossible task in writing American history through the portraits of its key citizens.  The availability of works and the amount of gallery space provided are only two practical obstacles which it faces and, in many cases, overcomes.  However, gaps certainly exist in its version of history.  Few Asian-Americans are found in its halls.  There is little notice given to "the folk" or the masses of unknown Americans who work to improve the nation in unsung ways each day.  However, the nature of any gallery is to provide specific examples of works that rise above the commonplace in order to contribute to the development of a form of art or, in this case, a nation.  The National Portrait Gallery also must work within the highly complex and controversial framework that is American history.    America’s historical record is the tale of myriad groups of people joining to pursue a democratic ideal; it is also the story of how those groups oppress and attempt to destroy each other.  Nevertheless, the Portrait Gallery balances the two through the progression of works displayed in the permanent collection and through special exhibitions which feature events and figures not centered around the "founding fathers," such as "Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Foundation Collection" or "The Seneca Falls Convention."  Yes, the Portrait Gallery is a government agency and is charged by Congress with presenting Americans who contribute positively in service to America rather than undermine the nation’s presumably democratic intentions.  However, it is also a museum, and in that vein it must either achieve some critical distance between its exhibits and its sponsors or abuse its power "to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths."  The National Portrait Gallery keeps that power in check by working toward a greater sense of including various people who appear to represent conflicting values in their contributions to the development of American culture.  That sense of inclusion mirrors the diversity of the American people as well as an increasing, though far from complete, sense of tolerance in late twentieth-century America.  As such, the National Portrait Gallery behaves perhaps less like a hall of mirrors in which static visions of characters reflect only what the viewer may take from a portrait at any single moment.

It is a proscenium arch through which Americans view the unfolding drama of their history through the actions of protagonists and antagonists.  That drama is performed each day, with new inflections and nuances worked into the tale, as the history of American culture is contested, and the winners and losers switch sides.   

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A view down the second floor's
An Evolving Culture.

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