This weekend, I’m in D.C. with family! We spent this morning at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This building in the chain of Smithsonian Institution museums is home to the National Portrait Gallery & American Art Museum. The Portrait Gallery is known for the exhibit “America’s Presidents” – which is now home to Barack Obama’s presidential portrait. The American Art Museum focuses on American contemporary, graphic, and folk art.
This building is the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. Donald W. Reynolds was born in Texas but moved to Oklahoma City early in his life before attending Mizzou. He began working at an early age – 13 – and continued to be active in his local community. During his time at Mizzou, he joined Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Delta Chi, Omicron Gamma Sigma, Student Senate, Oklahoma Club, and the Athenaean Literary Society. He was a Journalism major, and involved with the university’s newspaper and yearbook for the entire duration of his undergrad days.
Reynolds went on to establish his own foundation, donate to Mizzou to build an alumni center and journalism building. Later on, he founded the Donrey Media Group (sold to Stephens Media in 2002). Through his foundation, he gave a couple billion dollars in grants to organizations in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Nevada. Currently, he has a couple dozen buildings in his name.
The Robert & Arlene Kogod Courtyard is such a cool space. There is a cafe and a few dozen tables for people to eat, read, rest, and recharge. You would think that the cement walls and the glass ceiling would make it a relatively loud, echoing space – but it’s surprisingly quiet and calm.
The Kogods were a very philanthropic couple. Mr. Kogod made his wealth through real estate – specifically, going into business with Arlene’s father to serve as the co-CEO of Charles E. Smith Co. The Kogods were local, Mr. Kogod attended American. They donated their money into Israeli & Jewish organizations in the D.C. area. Additionally, American University’s business school is named the Kogod School of Business.
The primary purpose of the visit to the National Portrait Gallery was to see Michelle & Barack’s portraits. The Obamas chose their artists – Kehinde Wiley for Mister and Amy Sherald for Misses. Michelle’s portrait is hung in the Recent Acquisitions on the first floor of the museum. I will directly quote one of the sentences from the article I read on the portraits – “African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.” I think it’s so interesting how Wiley incorporated subtle hints at various parts of Barack’s life. Both artists have wildly distinct styles in their work. One article that I read (I have read dozens) said that Sherald paints all of her subjects with a grey skin tone to remove race as an aspect of the painting.
America’s First President
As I said, Barack’s portrait is in the America’s Presidents exhibit. One of my favorite portraits is George Washington. It’s an extremely regal painting. My other favorite presidential paintings are of JFK & LBJ. JFKs portrait is colorful and nontraditional, and created with long brush strokes of blue, green, and yellow paint. On the other hand, LBJs portrait is more traditional and created in realism.
Circling back to Washington though! His portrait is actually called the Lansdowne Portrait because it was originally commissioned as a gift for the Marquis of Lansdowne (he was an Englishman who was an active supporter in American independence from Britain). Again, there are details in the painting that have various symbolism. The crest on the top of his chair is a small, oval version of the flag – indeed there are 13 stars and 13 stripes. In the leg of the desk, there are two eagles and they hold a bundle of arrows – this is to represent America’s readiness for war. The rainbow in the top right corner was painting to show hope for the new country.
One last interesting fact about GW’s painting…
[The portrait spent time in England and Scotland and in personal collections before coming back to America.] “Beginning in 1968, it was displayed on indefinite loan in the Smithsonian’s new National Portrait Gallery until 2000. That year, the painting’s owner, Harry Dalmeny, announced that he was going to sell the piece at auction, unless the National Portrait Gallery could find $20 million to buy it. Soon after the announcement, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation gave the Portrait Gallery $30 million—$20 million to buy the painting and another $10 million for a place to display it and a national tour.” (from the MentalFloss article linked below)
20th Century Americans
Pictured above is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was painted by David Silvette. Fitzgerald went to Princeton but dropped out to join the army. He met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre while he was stationed in Alabama. They were engaged but then Zelda broke it off when he was unable to score a published for the first version of This Side of Paradise. He rewrote the book and scored a publisher. The book was instantly a hit at the beginning of the 1920s – which were actually deemed the “Jazz Age” by Fitzgerald himself. At 24, Fitzgerald became a young celebrity and married Zelda a week after the book was published. A few years later, they had a child, and another few years later, he discovered his wife’s affair with a naval officer. Their marriage went south when Fitzgerald became an alcoholic and Zelda developed serious mental problems. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical works are celebrated today.
Above, Magda Pach’s oil painting from 1933 portrays Frido Kahlo. Kahlo was from Mexico and married Diego Rivera twice. They were both prolific artists and became active in politics later on. Kahlo didn’t start painting until after she was in a bad trolley accident that resulted in dozens of surgeries. She was in and out of hospitals, and limited in her mobility – which lead her to learn to paint. After marrying Rivera in 1929, she changed her painting style and that’s also when she began to wear the traditional native outfits she is often pictured in. Her and Rivera came to America in the early ’30s for a few years before returning to Mexico.
I like Kahlo’s artwork because it is extremely distinct. She also uses so many rich colors and precise details in paintings that often explore difficult topics.
This painting of Michael Jackson was done by no other than Andy Warhol in 1984. Early 1984 was quite a time for Jackson. It was off to a rough start when Jackson was caught on fire due to faulty pyrotechnics while shooting a Pepsi ad in front of a live audience. It resulted in severe second & third degree burns. Those close to Jackson believe this was the gateway to his future drug abuse.
On another note, this accident was shortly after the release of the Thriller at the end of 1983, which was still at the top of every chart. The song and video stayed at the top of charts until well into April of 1984. In February, Jackson went on to win eight Grammy’s – a historic accomplishment that has only been equaled once by Carlos Santana.
Later in the year, the King of Pop was painted by the King of Pop Art for the March cover of TIME magazine. I linked the cover story to the article here – however, you do need a subscription to read it.
America Receiving the Nine Muses
This Steinway & Sons piano was commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt and received as a gift to the White House in 1903. The 100,000th Steinway piano was designed for the East Room, but would later be replaced during FDR’s time in the White House. Around the sides of the piano are the crests of the original 13 colonies. At the top of each leg is an eagle, the symbol of freedom. In the lid of the piano is Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s painting of the nine muses.
Grant and His Generals
The 10ft by 16ft painting of Ulysses S. Grant and his generals was created by Ole Peter Hansen Balling. Balling joined the men in City Point, Virginia to sketch them before creating the painting. Grant and 25 generals are depicted above, and it is believed that this is the only painting of George A. Custer (second from left).
A few interesting facts about Grant…
His birth name was Hiram Ulysses Grant but one of his letters for West Point addressed him as Ulysses S. Grant – and it stuck! After West Point and a decade in the army, Grant left to attempt other career fields but failed in each. He was later recruited to lead a group of volunteer fighters in the Civil War and won the battle at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. A few years later, he and his wife were invited to attend the theatre the night of Lincoln’s death but they declined to visit their children in New Jersey. Before becoming President, his only experience in politics was his service in the army. As President, one of his priorities became dismantling the KKK. He effectively forced the group to disband and go far off the radar until they slowly reconvened 40 years later.
I hoped you enjoyed learning about my visit to the National Portrait Gallery and about some of the pieces I find most interesting! Below I listed all of the websites I read to write this post (I was rather lazy about my bibliography format but…).
Have you been to the National Portrait Gallery before? If you have, share your favorite art below!
- NY Times article on the Obamas’s portraits.
- Biography of Donald Reynolds from Mizzou.
- Article on the Kogods.
- Khan Academy article on the Lansdowne Painting.
- MentalFloss 16 Facts about Lansdowne.
- Article on F. Scott Fitzgerald from USC.
- Biography on Frida Kahlo.
- Rolling Stones on Michael Jackson.
- Michael Jackson’s Grammys.
- Steinway Piano.
- Grant and His Generals.
- Grant Fun Facts.