- 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
The acquisition problem, difficult under any circumstances, is made more so by restrictions placed by Congress upon the gallery’s permanent collection. The enabling legislation stipulated that the term “portraiture” meant “painted or sculptured likenesses.” Which rules out, among other likenesses, those taken with a camera, or a substantial percentage of all likenesses made during the past century and a quarter, when the dominant form of portraiture was photography, not painting. Congress, being part of a bureaucracy, behaves in a manner common to officialdom: it is in the nature of things that each branch of government has its special fields of interest which must be protected at all costs, and in the case of photography, the Library of Congress was adjudged to have prior claim. To put it another way, the will of Congress means that the National Portrait Gallery is to have no portrait of President Andrew Johnson if it cannot pry loose the one known painting of him from that Swiss museum; it is not permitted to resort to a fine cabinet photograph of him. A different problem arises in the case of U. S. Grant: the gallery possesses a rather pedestrian oil painting of the general made at the time of Vicksburg, but though the essential Grant is more likely to be found in one of Mathew Brady’s or Alexander Gardner’s photographs, the gallery cannot include them except in its archival collection.
Unfortunately, the art of portraiture—at least in the sense of official portraits of well-known figures- has been in a state of decline for much of this century. Relatively few illustrious men and women of recent times have sat for their portraits by important artists; it has been easier, less expensive, and occasionally more fashionable to have one’s likeness taken by Steichen or Karsh or Bachrach or Newman. To make life more difficult for the portrait painter, the law is on the sitter’s side. If a man commissions a portrait and stipulates that the end result must be a likeness acceptable to him, courts have ruled that he cannot be made to pay for one he finds unsatisfactory.
The most prominent dispute of this kind in recent years was the episode involving a portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson by Peter Hurd. Unfortunately, when the painting was completed the artist shipped it to the L.B.J. Ranch ahead of his own arrival, asking the President not to look at it until Hurd could hang and light it properly. When he arrived at the ranch, Hurd perceived at once that the picture had been uncrated and that the President did not like it. “That’s the ugliest thing I ever saw,” L.B.J. was quoted as saying. When Hurd asked what type of picture he would prefer, the President showed the artist a painting of himself by illustrator Norman Rockwell. Hurd departed in icy politeness, and the portrait was returned to him. In this case, payment was proffered, but Hurd rejected it. Despite this rhubarb, it seems reasonable to suggest that Hurd’s picture will one day be hung in the National Portrait Gallery. It certainly qualifies for admission: it is a portrait of a President done by a distinguished American artist.
It goes almost without saying that the present lot of pictures in the National Portrait Gallery is a very mixed bag. Only the smallest fraction of the total represents the conscious choice of the gallery staff; virtually everything else is a hand-me-down from the National Gallery of Art, or from the Smithsonian Institution, or came in as an unsolicited donation. This is not to say that there are not good pictures in the collection, or pictures that satisfy the director and his staff: there are some paintings and pieces of sculpture that are superb by any standards—pictures that qualify on grounds of artistic as well as historic worth, as witness the pictures reproduced on pages 8 to 11. And although the collection is as yet much too sparse, it has in it the beginnings of a good representation of the whole spectrum of America’s past, from Pocahontas to Dwight David Eisenhower. Looking at the fivehundred-odd portraits that constitute it, one begins to get a sense of what, one day, it might conceivably be, provided that the public and Congress are generous. The National Portrait Gallery, left to its own devices and an acquisition budget of f 100,000 annually, is not likely to acquire more than a handful of really good portraits in a day when a fine one sells for as much as $50,000. What it might become will be suggested more dramatically in October of this year, when the gallery opens its doors for the first time and reveals, not its own collection, but a loan exhibition of portraits that have been gathered from public and private sources all over the world—portraits of the character and quality the National Portrait Gallery would like to have. Indeed, if it is to grow and prosper as a truly national gallery, as a pantheon of the nation’s great on the site L’Enfant once envisioned for it, such portraits are the kind it richly deserves.