A visit to Washington's Portrait Gallery

Many tourists who travel to America want to see the faces of the country. In Washington, the National Portrait Gallery is just the right spot to discover the people who have defined America.

National Portrait Gallery  (photo credit: Courtesy)
National Portrait Gallery
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Remembering that this year is the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, I stare with pride at the portrait of President Harry S Truman (1884- 1972) in one of the many popular museums in Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery at 8th and F Streets.
I recall that moment in history on May 14, 1948, when Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, granted the “world’s first recognition [de facto] of the new Jewish nation.” It should be said that on May 17, 1948, the Soviet Union followed with a more formal de jure recognition.
Other American presidents would play a significant role in the history of Israel, such as William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President, who also has his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.
Regarding US presidents, this is the museum that contains the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. The National Portrait Gallery provides visitors with the opportunity to explore the lives of those who have held the country’s highest office.
I discover that at the end of each presidency, the Portrait Gallery partners with the White House to commission one official portrait of the president and one of the first lady. In mid-February, the Gallery unveiled its commissioned portraits of former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. This is the first time that African American artists have been commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery’s official portraits of a president or first lady.
The museum’s Presidential Gallery is an open gate to American history.
I pause at the Gilbert Stuart’s famous “Lansdowne portrait of George Washington.”
I view a wonderful documentary on the most important speeches and sayings of recent presidents, including Dwight D.
Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George Herman Walker Bush.
Many tourists who travel to America want to see the faces of the country. In Washington, the National Portrait Gallery is just the right spot to discover the people who have defined America – not just its presidents, but its actors, athletes, activists, poets, intellects and rogues.
While this building does not have the notoriety these days of the newer museums, it is enlightening to visit this institution, for it contains 20,000 objects in a wide range of media, including marble, oil on canvas, drawings and photography. The gallery celebrates remarkable Americans in visual and performing arts.
The idea of a national portrait gallery dates back to 1857 when Congress commissioned George P.A. Healey to paint official portraits of all the presidents for the White House.
After World War I, a National Portrait Gallery was proposed, yet this gallery did not open until 1968.
Today the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum are two different museums within the same building. “The art complements the portraits, setting up a rich dialogue between the two,” it was noted. Together, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of American paintings and sculpture.
This ornate 1836 building is a masterpiece in itself. The structure was praised by Walt Whitman, as “the noblest of Washington’s buildings.” Today, it is deemed one of the country’s best examples of “Greek Revival architecture.”
IN MY recent visit, I entered the gallery’s striking Kogod Courtyard, which gave me another moment to reflect on America’s history.
The courtyard’s design reminded me of quiet spaces in European capitals. Here, too, are reflecting pools and a glass ceiling letting in the sunlight overlooking this historic city. A cafe standing on one side of this large courtyard offers refreshments. Cafe tables fill a small part of the peaceful space. Visitors sit and enjoy the quiet surroundings.
The spectacular waved glass cover over the courtyard was designed by Norman Foster.
I head up to the magnificent third floor great hall. Here are four galleries that feature 20th century Americans who were significant in politics, culture and science. In Bravo Gallery, there are video clips of performances of P.T. Barnum, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland.
Another gallery features bronze and terra- cotta portraits of famous Americans, such as president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
The first meeting of Europeans and Native Americans, as well as the Founding Fathers and historical figures in the Industrial Age, are displayed in the American Origin exhibit.
Here one focuses on the Native American diplomat Pocahontas and Thomas Edison.
All round out a wonderful museum experience.
There is something for everyone in this cultural attraction, including art made with aluminum foil, bottle caps and even television sets. In the final analysis, the National Portrait Gallery tells the story of America through the people who have impacted this country’s history and culture, including its presidents.
So, it is only fitting that after a visit to the museum, I head out to the towering Washington Monument, that tall, 170 m. marble obelisk honoring America’s first president.
Naturally, the monument is surrounded by flags from every state in the nation.
The gleaming white stone of the recently restored monument makes it clearly visible from almost all over the city. The views from the top of the monument across Washington are stunning. Inspiring indeed! The writer, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe. His other published books include Klara’s Journey, A Novel; The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.
Follow him on Twitter:@bengfrank