May 30, 2008

Your Art was the Best Art of All the Art

DH and I got the opportunity to head out to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery this week. (We snuck it in between paella and Ironman.) As we got there, a guided tour was just kicking off, so we decided to join in. At first, I thought we might as well just wander the halls ourselves and go at our own pace, but after the tour, I was really glad we declined the self-guided variety. I was seriously amused by the little tour. I am assembling quite the arsenal of “trivial” information on these little outings, and I think it’s lovely.

It was so much more meaningful to actually hear some background on the pieces we saw. I feel like I got to know the people in the painting and the person behind the paintbrush so much more. I’d like to share some things from the tour, so if you hate this kind of stuff, just hit the snooze button and check back for another update later on! But, if I could entice you, I won’t go on and on—promise.

Mrs. James Smith and Grandson, 1776 by Charles Willson Peale

This painting is part of a collection of many colonial American portraits. Only the wealthy were able to have their pictures painted, and most artists hated painting portraits. Why? Because they weren’t very beautiful, and most subjects were not happy with the outcome (see John Adams). Although not shown in this example, most artists would paint portraits with some kind of landscape in the background to get in a little of both. Another aspect of these paintings is that the people would wear their most expensive clothing (notice the intricate embroidery on the young boy’s vest and his gold buttons) or strategically place other objects to denote their importance or intelligence (notice the book in the boy’s hand). The interesting thing about this one, as experts have discovered, is that the book is actually a volume of Shakespeare, turned to Hamlet!

George Washington, 1796 by Gilbert Stuart

This painting of George Washington was recently acquired by the museum. A family in the UK put it up for sale. For obvious reasons, the Smithsonian was very interested in buying it, but unfortunately, they could not foot the bill. A generous donation came to the rescue from the Reynolds family, and the museum is now called the Reynolds Center in their honor. The painting went for 32 million dollars. (Got that lying around? The Smithsonian could be named after you!) DH said, “Well, no picture of me will ever go for that much . . . sorry.” Unfortunately, poor George will also never see the fruits of that portrait!

John Adams, 1826 by Gilbert Stuart

You’ll notice that Gilbert Stuart painted both George Washington and John Adams; he was a successful portrait artist at the time. John Adams lived a very long time even by our standards today: he died at 91. His son, John Quincy Adams (both who served as president), commissioned this painting shortly before his father’s death and instructed the painter to depict Adams exactly as he was, without “airbrushing,” which was popular at the time. (Seriously, who wants to actually see an “honest” portrait of themselves? It’s too bad the camera was invented . . . ) So, not only is the painting important because it’s a picture of John Adams, but it also gives us a rare glimpse into old age at the time. Pay attention to the heightened color in his cheeks, the watering eyes, the wrinkles, the pursed lips (probably hiding a toothless mouth), and hair loss. Has much changed in today’s world? Adams must have been a healthy person to live so long in those days!

Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868 by Albert Bierstadt

This painting is very large and quite breathtaking. The detail is amazing. There are a couple interesting things about it besides that it is really beautiful. These mountains, it’s been discovered, are not located in the Sierra Nevadas at all, but rather, in Tuscany, which, it turns out, makes sense because Bierstadt spent a lot of his time in Italy. The Civil War was going on at the time Bierstadt began this painting. I don’t know if you can see from the picture I’ve posted, but in the upper left hand corner, there are dark clouds that are moving in over the scene, symbolizing the impending storm (or, the war, of course). At the bottom, the birds are fleeing and the deer have their ears perked, sensitive to the change that is coming. And in the right half of the painting, you’ve got a sunny sky and lush greenery, symbolizing the return of the hope for prosperity and peace that will eventually return after the storm. Many artists of this period weaved these same themes into their paintings as Bierstadt had. So, as first glance, this painting doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Civil War at all, but in fact, it does.

The Death of Cleopatra, 1876 by Edmonia Lewis

I wanted to include this sculpture in my post, not only because it’s great, but because it is a piece that was created by an African American woman in the U.S. Did you catch the date? Yeah, post Civil War, but still! There were not a lot of opportunities at this time for African-Americans, and certainly not a woman. She was lucky enough to have a brother who came into a great deal of money (I forgot now how that happened), and he paid for her to actually study in Europe and become a great sculptor. I can’t believe they still have this piece in such great condition. Amazing!

Manhattan, 1932 by Georgia O’Keeffe

I fell in love with this picture the second I saw it. It’s Georgia O’Keeffe’s representation of the Big Apple. The towering buildings, the vivid colors. She is known for flowers, so those were also included in this painting. Near the piece was written a quote about how one cannot paint New York as it actually is, but one must paint New York as it feels. I think this painting captures that perfectly. At least, how I think it should feel, if I had any experience with the city besides as a tourist!


People in the Sun, 1960 by Edward Hopper

Supposedly, Edward Hopper is a well-known American artist, but I’d never heard of him until now. He is known for predominance of one color in his paintings, oftentimes blue, as in this piece. The other thing that his paintings always depict is the theme of loneliness. The people in his paintings are never interacting with each other, even when several people are together, as shown here. Although they are close in proximity, they are completely alone. I really found this an interesting commentary on American society and culture. And even more applicable today, as technology advances keep people plugged into iPods all day long and have traded physical interactions with the more isolated IMs, text messages, and emails, and even to an extent, dare I say it, blog entries.

Preamble, 1987 by Mike Wilkins

This is the only piece of contemporary art that I liked at the museum. Can you figure out why it’s called Preamble? Click on it to see a larger view. Clever, very clever!

So, there you have it. I hope you felt inspired by some of the best pieces of our country’s artists. Give or take a few pieces, you’ve now just taken a tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C! Still craving more? Visit here.

Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier. ~Charles F. Kettering

1 comment:

laurylaro said...

Sounds fascinating, thanks for the preview- I'm going out there next weekend:-)