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A Visit To The Portrait Gallery

While in the capital of the free world last week, to cover the opening of Art D.C., I arrived at the convention center early and started walking down 9th Street, to see the Jasper Johns exhibit at the National Gallery. Well, along the way the newly renovated Donald W. Reynolds Center/Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery -- say that real fast -- caught my eye. I had been wanting to see the galleries since they opened last year: just a quick look, then on to Jasper.

William ChristenberryOK, I stayed for two and a half hours: there were only a few visitors, so I could easily have spent the whole day. The collection is amazing, with temporary exhibits combined with a massive permanent collection of portraits of presidents, political leaders, Native Americans, and famous faces from throughout U.S. history. The portrait artists themselves are a Who’s Who of artistic talent, the Peale family, Trumbull, Stuart, Sargent, and Bingham. George Catlin’s documentary images of Native American tribes, from his five expeditions to the then-frontiers, are also part of the collection, as is a beautiful big Bierstadt landscape; displayed in its own mini-chapel.

The building, the former U.S. Patent Office, was the third public building constructed in the District of Columbia, by order of then-president Andrew Jackson. That tells me something of the importance that creativity and invention played in the growth of the country. The third floor of of the building was the original National Gallery. If you're looking for a patriotic boost or to be reminded of our feisty political past, this is the place to visit, and I say that without having time to visit the presidential portrait galleries.

Two temporary exhibits of note are Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry and Saul Steinberg: Illuminations. Christenberry is an artist I’ve just begun to follow: he’s known for his simplified paintings, collages, sculpture, and building constructions, which delve into the history and culture of his native Alabama; I am really enjoying his work.

David ParkThe greatest doodler of the 20th century, hands down, is Saul Steinberg. If you're wavering on that thought, then you have until June 24th to see this show. Included are many of his sketches and drawings for The New Yorker magazine covers and, in addition, many images never previously exhibited.

For me it's a memory trip through the 60s and 70s: his work was everywhere, and his pen could could get right to the heart of issues great and mundane. I thought of him as the Daumier of our time.

The third floor contemporary galleries currently display a pretty solid group, with work by Nam June Paik, Wayne Thiebaud, a few very good Alice Neel portraits, including The De Vegh Twins and this self portrait; she spared no one. David Parks' Woman With A Red Mouth, shown above, is a riot. Of the work I got to see, the Sargent portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chandler, the George Inness landscape, Niagra and a portrait of Baltimore's, Cardinal Gibbons, stayed with me.

I'm glad the gallery is open once again. In its new home, I will be back often. More images from my visit here.

1 comment:

Thomas Hogglestock said...

This has long been one of my favorite places to go in DC, very happy to see it open again.

Did you manage to check out the Luce Foundation Center on the top floor? A wonderful open archive collection that lets you wander through densely packed works of art where you can pretend like you really are in America's attic.

The Lunder Conservation Center is also fascinating. Five different conservation labs on display.

My only challenge with the new set-up is the overuse of quotes in large letters screened on the gallery walls. I am all for information plaques next to individual works, and I have no problem with large text on the wall that gives background information about an exhibit or collection. But I don't think that a wonderful Georgia O'Keefe needs a giant quote next to it to make it worth seeing.