North Carolina Museum of History

Raleigh, NC



A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery


Portraits have always spoken to our human desire to know each other. Before photography was invented in 1839, painted portraits, and engravings based on them, were one of the few ways to record likenesses of the nation's heroes and one's friends and family. Today, figurative painting remains as vital and expressive as portraits from any period.

Seventy-five paintings representing more than 250 years of American portraiture will be on view in the exhibition A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. The collection of paintings from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery highlights distinguished Americans who have shaped the history and culture of our country. The exhibit will run from January 27 to April 8, 2001.


Early American Portraiture

From the Colonial era through the 1820s, portraiture was the most widely practiced genre of American art, and it continued to be a significant form through the 19th century. The demand for likenesses was incessant, and portraiture was often the primary source of income for artists.

Artists frequently made portraits of famous people to attract interest and potential patrons. In 1834 Chester Harding painted frontiersman Davy Crockett, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, for display in his Boston gallery.

A consistent belief through most of the 18th and 19th centuries was that character could be read from a person's face, or the bumps on his or her head, or from facial expressions, and that portraits should convey these indicators of character. These theories of physiognomy and phrenology have since been debunked, but they were important considerations in depicting the nation's leaders, since such portraits were often made for posterity.

Most people had only one portrait painted in their lifetime, if at all, so artists were selected with great care, and expectations were high. As English portrait painter Jonathan Richardson wrote in 1715:

Upon the sight of a Portrait, the Character, and Master-strokes of The History of the Person it represents are apt to flow in upon the Mind, and to be the Subject of Conversation: So that to sit for one's Picture, is to have an Abstract of one's Life written, and published, and ourselves thus consign'd over to Honour, or Infamy.

Before the 1840s, American portraiture was influenced primarily by English techniques, poses, compositions and gestures, and many artists received at least part of their training in England. Even canvas sizes followed the British example and included life-size full-length (80 x 50 inches), half-length (50 x 40 inches), three-quarter-length (30 x 25 inches), or "bust" and the slightly larger "kit-cat" (36 x 28 inches), which allowed the artist to include one of the sitter's hands and more varied poses. Portraits made on commission were priced according to canvas size and materials and labor involved. (left: Edward Harrison May (1824-1887), Edith Wharton (1862-1937), oil on canvas, 1870)

French influences, including slightly narrower canvas proportions, can be seen in the techniques, compositions and colors of artists such as George Peter Alexander Healy, Thomas Hicks and John LaFarge from the 1840s and 1850s.


The 20th Century

French painting remained the dominant influence through the 1920s, with periodic challenges from Italy and Germany. In the late 19th century as European portraitists began traveling to the United States to acquire commissions from the growing upper class, American artists increasingly felt they needed to train abroad in order to succeed at home. Paris continued to be the main lure, as painters such as Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, Cecilia Beaux and John Singer Sargent went to study there. Some of America's best-known portraitists, in fact, became expatriates. As writer Henry James remarked in 1893:

It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when today we look for "American art," we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a good deal of Paris in it.

In the 1910s artists including Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Lee Simonson and Willard Huntington Wright sought inspiration from the more experimental work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and others affiliated with Fauvism and Cubism. The work of these Americans, in which the artist's style is as important as the literal likeness of the individual, marked significant changes in portraiture in the United States through the rest of the 20th century and helped re-shape American artistic tradition.

At about the time of World War I, American portraitists began a search for an art that was more uniquely American. European-based portraiture was further threatened by the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II, as many wealthy patrons lost the means to commission portraits, and the flow of artists to and from Europe dwindled. Portraiture shifted toward more democratic subjects, such as celebrities, artists and public figures, and away from people whose significance was based on social position, political influence or wealth.

The final break with Europe occurred after World War II with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, whose subject matter was the internal rather than the external world, but portraiture continued in new forms that drew upon abstraction but valued the figure, as did Elaine de Kooning in portraits of art critic Harold Rosenberg (1956) and others.

Other artists, including Peter Hurd, responded to the new "mainstream" of abstraction by returning to traditional forms. Hurd worked in tempera, a medium favored by 15th-century Flemish painters, to capture Theodore Roosevelt's formidable daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1965) and other subjects with the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail of centuries past.

In the last decades of the 20th century, figurative painting re-established itself in American art. Important portrait artists like Alice Neel, Jamie Wyeth, Andy Warhol and Alex Katz led their contemporaries in creating portraits very much of their time, which are as dynamic and expressive as portraits from any period.


The Tour

These paintings from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery collection of portraits of distinguished Americans will travel to seven museums in the United States, Tokyo and London while the Gallery is closed for major renovation.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share these paintings," says National Portrait Gallery director Marc Pachter. "We have never assembled and toured an exhibition that includes so much of the cream of our collection because many have been on permanent display."

According to National Portrait Gallery co-curators Carolyn K. Carr, deputy director and chief curator, and Ellen G. Miles, curator of painting and sculpture, the exhibition is in essence a survey of more than 250 years of American portraiture in all its diversity, with the primary consideration being the aesthetic qualities of the works themselves. The exhibition includes works by the most important portrait painters the nation has produced -- artists whose skill was such that they were chosen to depict important figures of their day.

The portraits in A Brush with History reflect the range of the Gallery's collection from John Smibert's (ca. 1727) portrait of Angiican clergyman George Berkeley and Charles Willson Peale's 1769 likeness of Maryland publisher Anne Green -- one of America's first woman publishers -- to Andy Warhol's 1984 Pop portrait of singer Michael Jackson and Ginny Stanford's 1991 portrayal of renowned food essayist M.F.K. Fisher.

The works demonstrate that, unlike other genres such as landscape painting, portraits are a collaboration. Each reveals the often complex relationships among the artist, the subject and the patron, when it is a commissioned work. The paintings are further shaped by their intended purpose, whether it is to record a national figure for public display or make a likeness of a loved one or friend for personal use. Adding to this intriguing mix are self-portraits, some of which were made to experiment with new techniques or compositions or for the sheer pleasure of self-expression.

Among the treasures in the exhibition are:

John Singleton Copley's brilliant self-portrait head of 1780-1784, which shows the artist facing left (a difficult pose that could have involved the use of two mirrors). The dramatic pose, strong highlighting and deep shadows suggest that Copley was experimenting with the looser, broader technique of British painting of the period.
The portrait of Cherokee leader Sequoyah (ca. 1830) showing him with the alphabet he developed for the Cherokee language. As a result of Sequoyah's work, thousands of his people learned to read and write. The portrait is a copy by Henry Inman of a work by Charles Bird King, who was commissioned by Indian affairs commissioner Thomas McKenney to create a visual record of Native American leaders. Inman was, in turn, commissioned to copy the collection as the basis for McKenney's groundbreaking three-volume History of the Indian Tribes of North America. (left: Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, Sequoyah (1770?-1843), oil on canvas, circa 1830)
Painter Mary Cassatt, portrayed by Edgar Degas as a token of friendship (ca. 1880-1884). This was the period when Cassatt, who had settled in Paris in 1874, was beginning to adopt the Impressionists' then-radical compositional structure and use of color and light for which she would become well known. Despite her interest in avant-garde art, Cassatt did not like this portrait. She confided to her agent in 1913, "It has some qualities as a work of art, but it is so painful and represents me as such a repugnant person that I would not want anyone to know I posed for it."
Scientist George Washington Carver's 1942 portrait by Betsy Graves Reyneau. Carver, who was born a slave, died an internationally honored scientist in 1943 after a career of nearly 40 years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama conducting research and teaching. Best known for finding more than 400 synthetic products in the peanut and the sweet potato ranging from margarine to library paste, Carver is portrayed in a laboratory apron examining a red-and-white amaryllis, a hybrid he developed.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book published by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and distributed by the University Press of New England. Copies are available for purchase in the Museum Shop.

The North Carolina Museum of History is located at 5 East Edenton Street, in downtown Raleigh, between the Capitol and the Legislative Building. The main entrance faces Bicentennial Plaza and the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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