- Historic Sites
National Portrait Gallery
On the site where Pierre L’Enfant once envisioned a pantheon, the nation’s heroes are being assembled in the form of a
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
In hitting upon certain rules for their own national portrait gallery, the British answered many questions that would confront their American cousins a century later. The first requisite was that the celebrity of the subject—not the merit of the artist—would determine whether or not a portrait was to be acquired. In other words, the gallery would be filled on historical, not artistic, grounds. And there would be villains along with heroes: “Nor will [the trustees] consider great faults and errors,” the rules read, “even though admitted on all sides, as any sufficient ground for excluding any portrait which may be valuable as illustrating the history of the country.” Portraits of living persons, except for the reigning sovereign, were ruled out (similarly, the U.S. National Portrait Gallery plans to include portraits of all Presidents, living or dead); so were modern copies of original portraits (a practice our own gallery cannot wholly avoid).
A nation conscious of its history and its heroes ought to have a sacellum where they are not so much enshrined as they are made available for figurative consultation and quiet inspiration. In this country we like to look our men in the face and see the stuff they are made of, to press the flesh and take their measure. So it is important to us, as it was to the British over a century ago, to possess a national family album. What is then at issue is who shall be included and, practically speaking, how the likenesses of those chosen are to be obtained. Lord Stanhope, serenely contemplating the eight centuries of English history since the Conquest, could say of his proposed portrait gallery: “There ought not to be in this collection a single portrait as to which a man of good education passing round and seeing the name in the catalogue would be under the necessity of asking, ‘Who is he?’” Similarly, the act of Congress under which the U.S. gallery was authorized prescribed that the portraits in it should be of men and women who had made “significant contributions” to the history and development and culture of the nation, and in interpreting this, Charles Nagel, the first director of the National Portrait Gallery, stated his belief that the contribution need not be a positive one. In his view, “Aaron Burr would be just as welcome as Alexander Hamilton, or John Wilkes Booth as Abraham Lincoln. For, though the contribution of these men, who were more than common assassins, was far from constructive, no one can doubt that the direction of the country’s history was changed by what they did.”
But given agreement with Lord Stanhope’s criterion for selection, the dilemma for a younger nation—particularly for a nation that began its portrait gallery a century too late—is that most good portraits of even reasonably prominent historical personages are already in other collections. Portraiture, being a costly affair, was not something the average American indulged himself in more than once in a lifetime, and the consequence is that portraits of many notables are relatively unavailable. The gallery would like nothing better, for instance, than to have an important, full-length painting of the country’s first President as a keystone of its collection. There are actually two such pictures in private hands and thus potentially available, but one is in the possession of the Earl of Rosebery, who has stated flatly that it is not for sale, and the other is obtainable for $350,000, several times the annual acquisition budget of the National Portrait Gallery. (This portrait, incidentally, is presently on loan to the gallery and is the picture visible at the end of the hall in the photograph on page 4; although the head and one hand may have been painted by Gilbert Stuart, a less certain craftsman handled the body and other details and managed to make the Father of his Country look a little like a short turkey with an oversize head.) Certainly a national portrait gallery worth its salt ought to have a likeness of every President of the United States, but this, too, is a difficult matter for an institution so newly on the scene. There is, for example, only one known oil painting of Andrew Johnson as President, and it resides in a Swiss museum that is unlikely to part with it. The gallery would give a good deal for that—or for a portrait of John Adams, or Jefferson, or Madison, or Theodore Roosevelt, but in each case likenesses are rare or hard to come by—even for a price.