The Art of DC

Today was a lonely day. Mom had meetings starting at breakfast & running through to a late working-dinner, so I was on my own all day. It was a good day though! Jam-packed with beauty & knowledge…aka art galleries & museums.

I started the day at the American Art Museum / National Portrait Gallery. These are two more members of the Smithsonian family, and two I was really excited to visit. I will admit that I know very little about art. While touring some of the most famous galleries of Europe I came to the conclusion that I enjoy art. I appreciate its beauty. I realize its depth. I acknowledge the talent it takes to create it. But I know nothing about it. So why was I enthused to visit a gallery? Because of all of the reasons I just listed! I want to admire art & I want to know more about it. It’s actually a goal of mine and increased exposure can only help.
Plus, Portrait Galleries are only half about the art and half about history…which I love! Justine & I visited the British National Portrait Gallery twice while we were in London and still have yet to complete it. The idea of the gallery is to gather portraits of all of the most influential Americans (or people who have most influenced America) and hang them together. Beside each portrait is a brief description of the person, why they’re awesome enough to have made the cut and, sometimes, facts about the painting itself. I could (and have now on 3 occasions) spend hours reading about all of the people featured. They obviously all have interesting stories behind them. I went in hoping this Portrait Gallery would be even half as good as the one in London and found it stacked up much better.
Now I am realizing this is going to be a lengthy post just describing these two galleries. So that’s all I’ll cover here & the afternoon will be its own post. Teaser: Air & Space!

The American Art Museum occupies the west half of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Art & Portraiture, while the Portrait Gallery covers the east…although they do crisscross here & there. The Greek Revival style building was originally the US Patent Building…a pretty nice place to go get your patents! In 1968 it was repurposed to its current use. Renovations were made from 2000 to 2006 to make the space more usable. This reno involved covering the interior courtyard with a really interesting glass roof. The roof actually “floats,” meaning it rests on the steel columns, as the historic building cannot support it’s weight. The columns also act as drains. When it rains the water runs down within the columns rather than pooling in the roof’s unique curves. I personally loved the design! It’s some pretty kick-ass engineering and an interestingly modern contrast to the 177-year-old building.
The courtyard also features a scrim. What is a scrim you ask? It is a fountain, which only features a thin layer of water flowing over the ground. I watched two toddlers having the best time splashing about and adorably enjoying the non-threatening water attraction.

Most of the Smithsonian’s offer this really cool thing: the Highlights Tour. It’s an approximately 1-hour guided tour of the most exciting, important and well-known pieces/exhibits/collections in that museum. I had to try it out and thought that an Art museum would be a great place to do it…maybe I’d learn something and expand my limited knowledge. Some of the pieces I‘m going to talk about below were on the tour, others weren’t. In general this is my personal Highlights Tour for you…

Starting with the Portrait Gallery, this museum shows the history of America through its people. Most of the portraits are separate by era, however there were a few special sections. One detailed sport stars (mainly baseball, but also golf, boxing, and tennis) and another influential musicians & actors. Favorites? The wood carving of Bob Hope, Gretzky’s Time cover and Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. And of course the portrait of husband & wife team Ely & Josephine Culbertson who started a “bridge craze” in the 20’s.
The Origin’s section provided a lot of interesting reading, but I enjoyed recognizing people of the Twentieth Century. I saw most of my favorite authors, like an oil painting of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and loved the black & white photo of Jim Hensen (the genius behind the muppets). Some inclusions made perfect sense, like Rudi Guliani or Bill Gates, while others left me somewhat flummoxed, like LL Cool J…seriously, look at his obnoxious painting below. Some of the inclusions weren’t even American, like Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.
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The prize jewel though is the Hall of Presidents. This is the only complete collection of original presidential portraits outside of the White House. I have a weird fascination with presidents and took time to read all of their bio cards. The best ones were:
Lyndon B. Johnson – “This portrait was meant to be Johnson’s official Whitehouse likeness…[until] Johnson declared it ‘the ugliest thing I ever saw’.”
Richard M. Nixon – “Artist Norman Rockwell admitted that he had intentionally flattered Nixon in this portrait…If he was going to err in his portrayal, he wanted it to be in a direction that would please the subject.”
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The American Art Gallery spans over three centuries of art. The oldest works fall mainly into two large categories: portraiture (which is covered by the Portrait Gallery) and landscapes. Early American painters were commonly influenced by nature; just look at America, all vast and varied. I know I’m not American, but I imagine they feel equally proud of their geographical diversity as us Canadians are.
Amoung the Sierra Nevada, California was painted by Albert Bierstadt in 1868. It is a mountain lake view so realistic that you can imagine stepping through the frame and being there. The obvious detail involved in the rock faces, clouds and trees is breathtaking, but what really impressed me what the realism of the moment. Bierstadt captured a life-like moment in time. My favorite part is the small rock jutting out of the water in the bottom left corner. The colors and highlights make the water appear to be gently lapping up against it.
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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are two massive paintings completed by Thomas Moran. They are imagines of a canyon painted from the same spot and in the same perspective, only 25 years apart. The one on the right, being the earlier work from 1873, is very specific in the positioning of trees and the details of the rock formation. The painting on the left however was painted between 1893 & 1901 and shows the progression of an artist. Geographical accuracy was no longer Moran’s concern. The focus is instead on light & shadow and the mood the colors create.

A fun section of the museum focuses on American folk art. Folk art by definition has been created by your every day person, someone who is not an artist by trade or training but still wants to express themselves in a creative manner. The coolest piece to me was James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly. Hampton was a janitor who built this elaborate, multi-piece alter set in his garage. You may recognize many of his materials. Rather than throw out garbage at work, he reused it. Discarded furniture, cardboard and burnt out light bulbs were used as a base, then added to with rolls & rolls of used tin foil. The configuration was found in Mr Hampton’s garage after his death and donated to the Smithsonian.
My favorite part of the museum was the Contemporary art. Housed in the Lincoln Gallery (the actual room where Lincoln held his 2nd inaugural ball) were the modern day pieces that I love to dissect meaning from. Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway was very eye-catching. It’s a giant electronic US map that displayed imagines related to each state within them. Cloud Music by Robert Watts, David Behrman, & Bob Diamond, however was ear-catching. This installation has a camera trained on the sky and device that turns the movement of cloud & light to music/sound…very cool, although not very exciting on a clear day.
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Finally, my favorite thing I saw today: Monekana by Deborah Butterfield. This horse was originally made of driftwood, but Butterfield wanted the statue to be everlasting so she disassembled it, dipped each piece in bronze and then hand painted it all to look like wood again.

Not the briefest of tours, but there were just so many interesting pieces to share! Hope you enjoyed…next we take flight!
Love & Luck,


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