National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum

In Washington, DC you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to free museums. With access comes familiarity–and having favorites becomes very easy indeed.

Paul Manship is well represented in these galleries, and his sculptures of animals embody the mythology and fable they depict. I’m fond of his dogs–whose manes, feathered tails, and fluffy butt-tufts remind me of my own dog.


NPG_fluff Actaeon (#1)

These sculptures depict the story of Diana and Actaeon. Actaeon spied the goddess in the nude, and was assailed by Diana for his folly. They are separate pieces, but as the Smithsonian descriptions note–“Manship linked the two sculptures by suggesting the flight of an unseen arrow, whose imaginary path through time and space connects the different moments in the story.”

This invisible linkage is awfully clever, including the viewer in the story the sculptures are telling.

My favorite Manship is part of a series of gates depicting fables, meant for William Church Osborne Memorial Playground in Manhattan’s Central Park. This one shows the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow.”  Two of my favorite animals in bronze!

NPG_FoxCrowAllThe Fox and The Crow by Paul Manship, 1952.

NPG_FoxCrow_CROW Crow, in detail.

NPG_FoxCrow_FOX Fox, in detail.

Sculpture has a knack for taking on a life of its own. Harriet Hosmer’s Puck and Will o’ the Wisp are no exception. They’re also based in mythology–this time inspired by the hand of Shakespeare. Puck is my favorite, with his bat-like wings, lizard pet, and mushroom seat.

NPG_Puck Puck by Harriet Hosmer. Modeled 1854, carved 1856.

The work found in the building that houses both the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery includes the historic as well as the mythological–and the intersection where those two overlap.

See: marble bust of Andrew Jackson by Ferdinand Pettrich.

NPG_GoAhead The quote on the wall by Frederick Marryat reads: “‘Go ahead.’ Is the real motto of the country.”

While I was visiting the National Portrait Gallery there was a Civil War exhibition, but there was tragically no photography allowed. It’s no secret that the 1800s are my favorite on both sides of the pond: The Victorian and the Civil War Eras. Fortunately, the works in the gallery aren’t wanting for art in that time period, so even though I can’t share with you the brilliant photos in The Gettysburg Address hall, or the landscape paintings of various battles, I can share this lovely little framed portrait–one of many.

NPG_photoPhotographs, to be carried on the person, as small treasures dressed in velvet and gold. This is more ornate than what your Civil War soldier might be carrying, but photos certainly accompanied them into battle and provided solace in dark hours around quiet campfires or garish ones in screaming fields.

The Civil War saw the death of a generation of America’s fathers, sons, and husbands. As a panel in the Gallery reads:

By the end of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theories of evolution and the breakneck pace of progress had shaken the philosophical and religious certainties at the bedrock of American culture. The next one hundred years promised marvels, but many American artists hesitated, creating introspective paintings and sculptures that explore the mysteries of life, death, and the fate of the soul.

From that collection:

NPG_drink The Cup of Death by Elihu Vedder, 1885.

NPG_Sorrow Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Modeled 1886-91, cast 1969.

This powerful piece is truly representative of the poignant story behind it. From the museum’s placard:

“Clover” Adams, wife of Henry Adams committed suicide in 1885 by drinking chemicals used to develop photographs. In Adam’s circle of artist and writers, the old Christian certainties seemed inadequate after the violence of the civil war, the industrialization of America, and Darwin’s theories of evolution. Saint-Gaudens’ ambiguous figure reflects the search for new insights into the mysteries of life and death.

The statue is supported by stone, surrounded by trees and a background of a forest cemetery enveloped in fog. This is a fantastic example of the museum’s mindfulness of space and presentation. To be honest, the building itself is art.

NPG_stairwell It’s not all relics and descriptions of the past, valuable though that is. The past informs our present, and rightly modern works are found in this stately building.

NPG_Neon Electronic Superhighway by Nam June Paik.

This piece has a video camera pointing to the visitor, displaying the real-time image on a screen representing Washington, DC. Including the viewer in the work, and the added statement of Government-as-Big-Brother-watching-you is awfully clever of the artist.

My favorites, though, are less neon. Immediately I was drawn to this piece:

NPG_graphite Nocturnal (Horizon Line) by Teresita Fernánde.

…and cursed the very fair, rational, and entirely disappointing sign saying “Do Not Touch The Art.” It is solid graphite, carved and whittled and made beautiful and textural. Touching it, no doubt, would change the piece over time. But who wouldn’t want to touch a piece with such dark softness and peace?

Same, for this work:

NPG_bwcomp Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelsin.

It’s downright architectural–a massive assembly of objects painted black. According to the description:

The artist liked black paint because it conjured “totality, peace and greatness.”


Sky Cathedral evokes what Nevelson called “the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea,” lying beyond our experience of ordinary things.

Like the night sky, you could stare at this piece for hours contemplating the elements that comprise it like stars and clouds and celestial bodies–things ever present, but considered under a new lens wrapped in its dark finery.

And that’s what I enjoy most about modern art and the abstract. Though they occupy–distinctly–the times of NOW they inevitably talk about those old, unchanging, things that make us up.

NPG_Horse Monekana by Deborah Butterfield.

Fitting, then, to end on this piece. In a space of clean lines, shiny floors, white walls, and bright light a horse made of ancient looking wood evokes all those things native, intrinsic, and true. And that’s an important purpose of art, really, in whatever age it’s created: to stir those things in us.