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National Portrait Gallery

May 2024
13min read

On the site where Pierre L’Enfant once envisioned a pantheon, the nation’s heroes are being assembled in the form of a

In the dreary wasteland of cheap rooming houses and parking lots, nudie shows and pinball parlors, it is surprising to come so suddenly and unexpectedly upon what is surely one of the great buildings in the nation’s capital. Only the White House and the Capitol itself are older; only they can rival it in form and beauty and audacious splendor; yet it is typical of the unassuming role this structure has played in the District of Columbia’s recent past that it docs not even have a proper sort of name. Long-time residents still call it the Old Patent Office Building; officially, it is now the Fine Arts and Portrait Gallery Building, to indicate that it is shared by the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery; but mention either name to an inexperienced taxi driver and chantes are lie will have In ask for directions. Only a tiny fraction of the ten million Americans who visit Washington cacli year arc even aware of its existence, but this ncoclassic pile occupies two full city blocks in the run-down, not-quitc-blightcd Southeast section, and within its superbly vaulted halls will one day hang the collection of pictures that even now is bravely called the National Portrait Gallery.

Here, 177 years ago, at a point roughly halfway between the President’s house and the building Congress was to occupy on Tenkins’ Hill, Pierre Charles L’Enfant envisioned a national pantheon. L’Enfant, a wildly improvident French painter-turned-architect-and-city-planner, who was chosen to design the new Federal City because his sense of scale appealed to George Washington, was a man of sudden whim and passion, and one feature of his grandiloquent scheme for the capital was that the site in the Southeast area now defined by Seventh, Ninth, F, and G streets should he a place of honor for the nation’s immortals. In a curious though far from fully defined way, that is approximately what is now taking place; but how it came to pass, in the contorted course of a century and three quarters, requires a long backward look at the venerable building and its story.

By 1836—long after L’Enfant—Congress adopted a design submitted by William Parker Elliott for a monumental building inspired by the Parthenon, and almost immediately President Andrew Jackson—who believed in turning things over to his own men—appointed his court architect, Robert Miller, to execute the work. (“ We have entered a new era in the history of the world,” Mills proclaimed; “it is our destiny to lead, not to be led.”) When the south section of the buildingwas completed in 1840, it was not, as L’Enfant had hoped, the mortal remains of the nation’s heroes that were admitted, but the Patent Office—that “temple of the useful arts,” which had been destroyed by fire four years earlier along with its collection of seven thousand patent models.

For two decades the edifice grew and its contents proliferated until, by 1860, it contained not only the Patent Office but also the Department of the Interior, the National Institute, the National Museum, and the latest marble-topped washstands and a cuspidor-sterilizing system. An unfriendly critic might sneer at the building as “American composite, a sort of conglomerated specimen of native growth,” but Latimer’s Guide Book hailed it aptly as “one of the greatest ornaments of the city.” During the Civil War, troops were quartered in the building from time to time, and after the Battle of Antietam, wounded and dying men by the hundreds were laid out on the marble floors between display cases full of patent models and assorted mementos collected by Captain Charles Wilkes in the South Seas and Commodore Matthew C. Perry in Japan. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman ministered to the suffering soldiers there, and Whitman described how “two of the immense apartments arc filled with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick; besides a great long double row of them, up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them are very bad … wounds, and amputations.”

As one of the wonders of the capital city, the Patent Office Building in 1865 was the setting for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and banquet, an event attended by more than four thousand guests. Women in silks and laces, men in court dress, formal evening attire, or “dazzling uniforms” thronged up the majestic stone stairway into the great south portico, brilliantly illuminated by gas lamps, and ascended the magnificent curving staircase to the grand exhibition hall above. Here, according to newspaper accounts, they admired the columns, the vaulted ceiling and skylight, “elegant tessellated marble floors,” and the “Pompeiian style” tiles. In the enormous east hall, with its thirty-two marble pillars, an orchestra played for dancing until 10 P.M., when the military band struck up “Hail to the Chief” and President and Mrs. Lincoln and their entourage strolled into the hall. After midnight there was a monumental feast at 250-foot tables; some guests stayed on until 4:00 A.M.

After the return of peace the building never again achieved such a moment of splendor, but each year thousands of Americans came to see the ever-growing collection of patent models and other curios—including the original of the Declaration of Independence; Benjamin Franklin’s printing press; George Washington’s field tent, uniform, sword, and commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army; and some of Robert E. Lee’s personal effects. Then, in late September of 1877, a disastrous fire broke out, and before it could be brought under control, fire engines had arrived from as far away as Baltimore. Many patent models and historical displays were rescued, but the upper portion of the building was so gutted that the interior had to be rebuilt. It is the result of that restoration that one sees today.

In 1932 the Patent Office moved out and the Civil Service Commission took over (and immediately signalled its possession by vandalizing the interior of the building—including the beautiful marble columns— with paint of a color known to every government employee as “civil service green”); two years later the fine flight of steps leading to the south portico was removed to permit the widening of F Street; and in 1953 the structure was more seriously threatened when legislation—backed by local merchants—was introduced in Congress to permit it to be razed and replaced by a parking garage. Happily for the building, for Washington, and for posterity, David E. Finley, the Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, called the matter to President Eisenhower’s attention and the building was saved; Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced the bill to Congress that spared it.

Then, in 1962, the availability of space in the Old Patent Office Building and the need for a home for the National Portrait Gallery came in conjunction, and made for one of those happy marriages of convenience of which even bureaucracy is sometimes capable. At that, it was something of a shotgun affair. Andrew Mellon, who had presented the National Gallery of Art to the nation in 1937, left a bequest of a number of American portraits to that gallery, with instructions that any not actually needed should go to a national portrait gallery, should such a place be in existence twenty years hence. The Mellon trust made the gift in 1942, and precisely twenty years later Congress passed legislation creating the National Portrait Gallery, as a consequence of which thirty-five portraits were transferred to it from the National Gallery of Art.

This stimulus required a response from those charged with administering the will of Congress—the National Portrait Gallery Commission. It suddenly became important that that body do some philosophizing about portraiture in general and about a gallery of national portraits in particular. Among the many considerations were: What was the attitude of the United States government regarding portraits? Which men and women from the American past deserved a place in this pantheon? What criteria should be established to determine the quality of portraits to be hung? Would portraits of living persons be admitted? If so, which living persons? Would the gallery accept a picture of anyone from a donor? And finally, and most important, what constitutes a portrait?

In their search for an answer to the last question, it is doubtful that the commissioners’ thoughts went back across the centuries to prehistoric times, but that, in truth, is when portraiture began. The art of counterfeiting a likeness of an individual human being had its roots in the desire of primitive peoples to “trap” the spirit of a dead person (usually an ancestor) by making a likeness of him. Sometimes this took the form of a stone carving, like those on Easter Island, sometimes that of a plastered skull decorated to represent a certain individual. But in the sense in which we tend to think of portraiture—that is, the representation of a known personage—the first portrait of an identifiable historic figure is probably one of Narmer, the first pharaoh, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt about 3200 B.C.

The ancient Near East and the Old Kingdom of Egypt set high store by portraiture; the Greeks, on the other hand, were not much concerned with it until Alexander brought back the notion from the East. Not until Roman times did a real portrait tradition begin, reaching its apogee in the wonderfully realistic, psychologically revealing portrait busts of the soldieremperors, in which the uncompromising honesty of the artist produced minutely observed facial details- portraiture, it might be said, with the warts. For a thousand years Roman political and military leaders were honored for their achievements by having their likenesses put on public display, and posterity is richer for the custom. Then, for nearly another millennium, the tradition lay dormant. The early Christians, with their Judaic suspicion of idolatry and their eyes on another world, were too busy or too uncaring about the world around them to wish to record it.

During the Middle Ages the collecting of sculpture, a custom so highly regarded in earlier times, fell from favor; and instead, the taste of those who could afford such treasures turned more to jewelry, to rich fabrics, and to illuminated manuscripts. With the exception of some death masks of royal personages, portraiture was not really resumed until the fourteenth century, when a few sculptors began to create realistic likenesses of individual subjects. Then, with the Renaissance revival of interest in the classical world and the concept of the dignity of man, portraiture again began to thrive. In painting, it usually took the form of a likeness of the donor discreetly placed in a religious scene; gradually, royalty and the great merchant princes began commissioning separate portraits of themselves.

Along toward the end of the eighteenth century there was a great deal of experimentation going on with the camera obscura; a vogue for silhouette portraits, many of them traced from the shadow of the sitter’s profile, had inspired much of it—and as a result of the many efforts made to record these shadows on light-sensitive materials, by the 1840’s photography was a practical process. Portraiture, in the form of the photographic likeness, finally came to the masses.

More or less concurrently—by the middle of the nineteenth century, that is—the English had determined that they needed a national portrait gallery. They had always admired portraiture, to such an extent that when there were no British artists capable of recording the likenesses of their great men, talent was imported from the Continent or the great men went abroad to have their portraits painted. But admiration of itself does not build a portrait gallery, and to Philip Henry, fifth Earl Stanhope, goes credit for launching the institution which preserves so many countenances of England’s past; in 1856 he proposed in the House of Lords that Queen Victoria consider the possibility of forming “a Gallery of the Portraits of the most eminent Persons in British History.” In this effort he was materially aided by the historian Thomas Carlyle, who had written, in a letter to a friend, the best possible advertisement for such a gallery:”… in all my poor Historical investigations,” Carlyle said, “it has been … one of the most primary wants to procure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after; a good Portrait if such exists; failing that, even an indifferent if sincere one. In short, any representation, made by a faithful human creature, of that Face and Figure, which he saw with his eyes, and which I can never see with mine, is now valuable to me, and much better than none at all.”

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.

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.


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