Tag Archives: American Art Museum

National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum

I’ve probably talked about this before – I have a genealogical as well as spiritual connection to the National Portrait Gallery. An ancestor of mine, Senator John Ruggles of Maine was a big fan of all things patent related. During his tenure as a senator (1830-36), he realized that the US Patent Office was in horrible disarray. They were housed in an old building in poor condition, and as such it was a terrible disservice to patent seekers, patent holders, and the nation as a whole – if it was hard to get or defend a patent, innovators would leave the country and take their industries elsewhere. As a result, he managed to wrestle a patent office reform and the allocation of funds to build a new, fireproof, patent office building out of congress. The building now occupied by the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum is that building. During the civil war, it functioned as a barracks and a hospital, and in 1865 it housed Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.

The building was built not only as a warehouse and government office, but from the first it was open to the public as an exhibition space to come see the patent models submitted with patent applications. As such, it makes for a fantastic museum, complete with dramatic display spaces to showcase some sometimes rather large pieces of art. This niche is a perfect example – all it took was some velvet curtains and matching settee.

Theatrical Painting, American Art Museum
Theatrical Painting, American Art Museum

It has several of the most exquisite and dramatic staircases in the city, in my opinion. The following photos are of the main stairs that run from the F Street entrance up to the grand gallery on the third and fourth floors. There is another staircase that I can’t do justice to with the Rollei because it requires a wide-angle lens to show the sweep of the bannister and the giant mural of General Grant and his generals that spans the curved wall behind the stairs.

Staircase, National Portrait Gallery
Staircase, National Portrait Gallery

The brass and wood balustrade sweeps around in dramatic fashion. Wouldn’t you love to have a staircase like this in your house?

Rail, Staircase, National Portrait Gallery
Rail, Staircase, National Portrait Gallery

This chandelier is on the second floor landing. The window behind looks out into the courtyard of the dual museums. A few years ago, the courtyard was roofed over with a roof designed by Norman Foster. I was initially opposed to the concept of roofing the courtyard, removing the garden and paving the space with dark gray pavers. However, with time, I’ve come to love the space. They did keep some greenery, and made the space useable 365 days a year.

The chandelier is vintage mid-19th century gas adapted to electricity. It’s always a challenge to balance updating and modernization with historical preservation. I think they did an overall outstanding job with this building, and I’m thrilled to see it maintaining relevance and utility into the 21st century.

Chandelier, Staircase, National Portrait Gallery
Chandelier, Staircase, National Portrait Gallery

Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Kogod Courtyard, West Facade, Night
Kogod Courtyard, West Facade, Night
Kogod Courtyard, South Facade, Night
Kogod Courtyard, South Facade, Night
Kogod Courtyard, Southeast View, Day
Kogod Courtyard, Southeast View, Day
Kogod Courtyard, West View, Day
Kogod Courtyard, West View, Day
Kogod Courtyard, South View, Day
Kogod Courtyard, South View, Day

Here are some views of the Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery. The blue lighting in the nighttime shots of the courtyard was for an after-hours reception being held at the museum. The courtyard used to be a fairly typical Victorian-era affair with a pair of fountains and some scraggly looking shrubbery, open to the air and more importantly, the weather. A few years ago they undertook a multi-million dollar renovation, ripping out the old landscaping and (non-working) fountains and enclosing it with a Norman Foster designed undulating glass roof. At first I found the interior design rather stark. It has grown on me, though, with the modern interpretations of fountains being just a thin sheet of water flowing in a rectangle across the floor. Of course the roof is the masterwork – it bends and twists like a piece of origami paper. The courtyard is now a very pleasant place to sit and just pass the time, reading a book or eating something from the museum cafe.

All photos were taken with my Rolleiflex 2.8E, on Kodak Portra 800 film. Also, for the die-hard photo geeks out there, I’ve been using the free light meter app for my iPhone to do the metering. I’d say it works pretty darned well 🙂

Light Sculpture at the National Gallery

National Gallery Light Sculpture

Here’s my first video post- I went to the National Gallery of Art today and shot this little video clip of the light sculpture between the underground cafe and the East Wing of the National Gallery. This is one of the pleasures and benefits of living in Washington DC – virtually all museums are free admission, and open 7 days a week. I’d be hard pressed to move elsewhere and give up this perk. Do note that the National Gallery of Art is NOT part of the Smithsonian, although it is co-located with the other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. I actually made it a three museum day – I started off with the African-American Civil War Museum, which is located in my neighborhood. For a small, privately funded museum without the visibility or the location of the big name museums downtown, they did an impressive job of displaying and interpreting the storyline and the supporting artifacts in their collection.

African American Civil War Museum

I knew they were there, but in more than a decade of living near them, I had never made it in. Today I decided to stop by and see, since they were open (a past problem due to their former facilities). I’m very glad I did. Because I’m a civil war nut, there wasn’t a LOT new to me, but there was enough to make it worthwhile. They do a great job contextualizing the African-American experience from the beginnings of European colonization in the Americas through the Civil War, and beyond to the Civil Rights era. I highly recommend the visit.

To bracket the experience, I stopped in the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art (which IS part of the Smithsonian, and has awesome opening hours, from 11 am to 7 pm every day except Christmas). This is one of the very best museums in DC, in my opinion, not only because they’re in a beautiful Greek Revival building originally designed to house the US Patent Office (which I have a personal connection to the building – an ancestor of mine was a US Senator from Maine who commissioned the construction of the building), but they also have some of the very best photography (and non-photographic art) exhibits. They have some daring younger curators putting together brilliant exhibits that include painting, photography, prints, and sculpture, keeping the underlying theme of the American experience to unify sometimes very disparate artworks and objects. Today I saw “The Civil War and American Art“, rather a contrast to the African-American museum because it was filled with big-ticket paintings and original photographs. At least it was not neglectful of the African-American experience, including multiple paintings on the question of slavery and its impact on the American psyche and the Civil War.

Then it was on to the National Gallery of Art. Yes, I know, whirlwind day. The NGA had a photography show in their basement gallery on the subject of “Serial Portraiture”. Serial Portraiture is defined as works of portraiture that span an extended period of time and/or depict multiple aspects of a person’s character or moods. The exhibit featured works by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Milton Rogovin, and a handful of contemporary photographers like Francesca Woodman and Ann Hamilton. The show itself is interesting, depicting classic as well as contemporary takes on the serial portrait and its use to explore contemporary concerns with identity and expression. The exhibition catalog (available as a PDF) is a failure, as it excludes more than half the material in the show. This is where the NGA is a consistent disappointment – they mount some potentially interesting exhibits of photography, but they hide them away in the basement, and then if they produce an exhibition catalog at all, they produce some half-hearted flimsy pamphlet. The Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum, on the other hand, when they produce a catalog, like the Civil War Art exhibit, they go all out with a hardcover volume with supplemental materials beyond what is presented in the exhibit.

To cleanse the palate after that, I stopped by the Michelangelo “David-Apollo” display upstairs. This is the kind of thing the NGA does get right (although they wouldn’t allow photos!!! BOO HISS) – classical art by dead white men. I really wish a piece like this was on display when I was taking my stone carving classes, as studying photos of Michelangelo’s carving technique is radically insufficient. If you have the opportunity, please come and see the piece while it is here – it returns to Italy at the end of March, 2013.