Friday, April 12, 2013

From Better Mousetraps to Masterworks

The National Portrait Gallery and 
Smithsonian Center for American Art

Now and then, when scheduling business travel, I slip in a spare day just for me.

This week I engineered a spare day in Washington DC.

I happen to love our capital and this week the cherry blossom's reached their zenith (which will be my next post)! Of course with all those delicate blossoms come lots (and lots) of tourists and this week the District was hopping. In fact I don't think I've ever seen DC with such total gridlock before, streets jammed up by 3 PM and stayed jammed till about 7:30 PM.

Fine with me, I just applied good old shoe leather.

Since I've checked off most of the usual sights in Washington I decided to go to the "Spy Museum."

It is just steps from the Gallery / Chinatown Metro stop. As it turns out the Spy Museum is more of a privately operated tourist attraction than a "museum". But it was well done and (albeit a bit expensive) a lot of fun. I spent about two hours in air conditioned splendor reading about the espionage exploits of everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Marlene Dietrich and Julia Child. It also has a very cool gift shop. Alas they do not allow photographs, so no post from there.

As I left the Spy Museum it was just coming up on 3:00 PM, so I still had lots of time to explore. And in looking across the street I saw the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Having spent some very enjoyable time in London's portrait gallery I decided I'd at least pop in for a peek.

The Museum is Seemingly Guarded by Luis Jimenez' Vaquero (1990)
(Jimenez Died While Creating the Terrifying Mustang at Denver's Airport)  

It turns out that the Portrait Gallery is actually one of two compatible Smithsonian museums that have been carefully fused together. The official title of the building is the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Immediately after walking inside I was smitten. The building itself is spectacular and it contains a collection that I found rich, diverse and completely fascinating. After 4 hours I had only explored the first two floors and was just on my way to the third floor. Upon arrival on floor three I was alerted that it was already 7:00 PM (this realization was provided by a friendly gallery guard who assisted me in finding an exit.)

The 330,000 square foot building was completed in 1868 to serve as the United State's Patent office. Even prior to completion it played a role during the civil war as a hospital and a venue for Lincoln's second inauguration. Until 1949 it housed America's "Temple of Invention" a great hall filled with some of the very cool models submitted for patents (some are still on display today).

A "Better" Mousetrap Patent Model

By 1950 the abandoned building was threatened with demolition. Happily in 1968 President Johnson deeded the building to the Smithsonian Institutions who in 2006 invested $226,000,000 in a careful and thorough renovation. To complete the upgrade Sir Norman Foster (the British Museum, Millennium Bridge etc.) was retained in 2007 to create a skylight enclosure for the building's courtyard to knit the building together. His new indoor courtyard is a quiet, sublime oasis, complete with a very nice cafe with internet access.

Foster's Courtyard 
And its Scrims of Water

The museum's permanent collection is one of the few uncrowded places left in the world to view seminal works by artists like Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Albert Beirdstadt (just scratching the surface.)

It also stages wonderful special exhibits. While there I viewed submissions for the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. In this exhibit I was delighted to see Winslow Arizona's Tina Mion and her submission "Piñata".

Upcoming Exhibitions include: Dancing the Dream opening in October 2013 (the art of dance and the evolution of a modern American identity) and American Cool opening in 2014. While exploring I particularly enjoyed the current special exhibition "One Life" devoted to Amelia Earhart.

Roadboy's friends know I was very frustrated a few years back in my attempt to view Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was away on loan. Then later I fought crowds to see his works in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

So, here in a museum I entered on a whim, I walk into a gallery and find myself staring at Hopper's Cape Cod Morning. And..... I had it all to myself.

Cape Cod Morning 
Edward Hopper (1950)

Literally a few feet away was Georgia O'Keeffe's raucous Manhattan.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1932)

As I ventured further I encountered two remarkable paintings by another favorite, Thomas Hart Benton. One is epic in size and the other is the highly personal self portrait he painted just after he married his wife Rita.

Achelous and Hercules
Thomas Hart Benton (1947)
(This Painting is 22' long - Click it For Detail) 

Self Portrait With Rita
Thomas Hart Benton (1922)

Moving on I came across two small elegant Winslow Homer watercolors including Boys in a Dory.

Boys in a Dory 
Winslow Homer (1880)

The Struggle for Justice Gallery drew emotion. I found myself stopped dead in my tracks at the Eunice Shriver painting created to celebrate her role in the formation of the Special Olympics. Here was a woman, who to the end, was defiant in living in the moment.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver
David Lenz (2009)
(Note: This is Only the Right Half of This Wonderful Portrait)

I also found myself completely mesmerized by a painting of Marian Anderson casting a determined look away from the viewer. I may never know who she was looking at, but her eyes convey everything I need to know about strength and dignity and what it means to be truly heroic.

Marian Anderson
Betsy Graves (1955)

Another painting that I found powerful was Maynard Dixon's "Shapes of Fear". Created at the height of the depression this portrait conveys, with power, the despair of the era.    

Shapes of Fear
Maynard Dixon (1930-32)

I close with the two huge Chuck Close Photo tapestries of President Obama in the rotunda. Again I feel our president's soul is conveyed in his eyes.

President Barak Obama
Chuck Close

I know there are many, many wonderful sights competing for attention when visiting Washington DC. I always find it hard to prioritize my time there. Nonetheless, Roadboy strongly urges anyone visiting DC to add this gallery to your list. 

It is zero hype, no crowds, offers flawless AC, a stunning courtyard, lovely cafe and a super museum store. In most galleries you are welcome to take photos. And, amazingly, it is still completely free!

I can hardly wait to go back and see the third floor.

Roadboy's Travels © 2013

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