Tennessee State Museum

Nashville, TN

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A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery


A premier art exhibition featuring more than 70 paintings from the collection of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will be on view at the Tennessee State Museum through July 1, 2001 in an exhibition titled, A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition includes works by some of the most important portrait painters that America has produced, artists of such skill and talent that they were chosen to depict the most important figures of their day. The portraits in A Brush with History reflect the range of the National Portrait Gallery's collection from Charles Willson Peale's 1769 likeness of Maryland publisher Anne Green, one of America's first woman publishers, to Andy Warhol's 1984 pop art portrait of singer Michael Jackson. (right: Mary Cassatt, by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, circa 1880-1884, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution)

The exhibition of works from the national collection of portraits of distinguished Americans was organized by the National Portrait Gallery and 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 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." (left: Davy Crockett, by Chester Harding, Oil on canvas, circa 1834, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, future bequest of Ms. Katharine Bradford)

The exhibit features 75 paintings of such renowned Americans as Sequoyah, Dolley Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Clemens, George Gershwin, and Carl Sandburg. The artists who created these works include John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Charles Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Hart Benton and Jamie Wyeth.

According to co-curators Carolyn K. Carr, deputy director and chief curator at the Gallery, 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 works demonstrate that, unlike other genres such as landscape paintings, portraits are a collaboration. Each reveals the often complex relationships among the artist, the subject and the patron, when it is a commissioned work, according to the curators. They 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.(left: Juliette Gordon Low, by Edward Hughes, Oil on canvas, 1887, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America)

Before photography was invented in 1839, painted portraits, and engravings, were one of the few ways to record likenesses of the nation's heroes and one's friends and family. Most people had only one portrait painted in their lifetime, if at all, so artists were selected with great care and expectations were high.

From the Colonial era through the 1820s, portraiture was the most widely practiced genre of American art. It continued to be a significant art form through the 19th century. Artists of that time frequently made portraits of famous people to attract interest and potential patrons. Chester Harding, a painter who depicted frontiersman David Crockett in 1834, while he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, did so in order to display the portrait in his Boston gallery.

Around the time of World War I, American portraitists began a search for an art that was more uniquely American. The nature of 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. (left: George Washington Carver, by Betsy Graves Reyneau, Oil on canvas, 1942, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American Art; gift of the George Washington Carver Memorial Committee to the Smithsonian Institution, 1944)

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. However, portraiture continued in new forms, which drew upon abstraction but valued the figure, such as Elaine de Kooning's portrait of art critic Harold Rosenberg (1956) and others.

Portraiture had a resurgence in the last decades of the 20th century when portrait artists like Alice Neel, Jamie Wyeth, Andy Warhol and Alex Katz led their contemporaries in creating portraits very much of their time and as vital and expressive as portraits from any period. (left: Michael Jackson, by Andy Warhol, Oil on silkscreen, 1984, Time cover; March 19, 1984, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Time magazine © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, NY)

Nine individuals included in A Brush with History have been identified as having historical connections to Tennessee: H.H. Richardson, Benjamin Franklin, Sequoyah, David Crockett, Charles Willson Peale, Philip Sheridan, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton and Samuel Clemens. These "Tennessee Ties" will be discussed in explanatory labels throughout the exhibit and in the educational "Clipboard Capers" for visiting children.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog entitled A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery, which will be for sale in the museum store.



More articles on American figurative and portrait art from this magazine:

rev. 5/15/01

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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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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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