Washington D.C. makes me patriotic. I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both housed in the Smithsonian Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. The building has been recently renovated. It is the original Patent Office Building and said to be a “masterpiece of Greek Revival design.” It was constructed between 1836 and 1868. You can read more about this amazing building and its history here.
This is two museums in one, and as such, demands multiple visits to absorb all that it has to offer. Here is a sample from the Smithsonian American Art Museum entitled 'October' (1867, artist John Whetter Ehninger).
Like many D.C. museums, this one is free, although its hours, 11:30Am – 7:00PM, are a bit odd. (Okay, I admit it. I showed up at 9:00AM thinking I could perhaps visit a second museum later in the day.)
The building itself is stunning, with a sweeping staircase and an upper floor with vaulted ceilings.
My first interest, however, was the America’s Presidents exhibition, the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. Each portrait also includes a plaque telling you something about the president. Here is a portrait of James Monroe (1816, artist John Vanderlyn).
It’s interesting to go through. You realize there are some presidents you don’t think about very much—when’s the last time you thought about Millard Fillmore (13th, not nominated for a second term) or William Henry Harrison (9th, died in office and served only one month) or even Chester A. Arthur (21st, not nominated for a second term)?
Things change a bit when you get to presidents who served during your lifetime. Everybody remembers where they were or what they were doing when Kennedy got shot (okay, if you were alive you remember).
You remember the disgrace of Nixon (“I am not a crook!”) and the fact that he is the only president (so far) who has resigned. His portrait in the gallery is admittedly small, but tasteful and certainly flattering. He is credited for opening relationships with China. His successor, Gerald Ford, is the only president not elected either vice president or president (he was appointed vice president when Agnew resigned and succeeded Nixon when Nixon resigned). Ford pardoned Nixon and gave amnesty to the Vietnam War resisters.
What kind of portrait and what little tidbit are “they” going to write about the current Bush? (One website kindly noted that he once owned part interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team. Is that an accomplishment?) And if Buchanan is signaled out as being a contender for Worst President Ever because he helped start a civil war . . . wait! Didn’t Bush start a civil war in Iraq?
Let’s not belabor the obvious. On a more patriotic note, here is a license plate speak mural in the American Art section that displays the Preamble to the Constitution (Preamble, 1987, Mike Wilkins, sculptor). You can see the real thing (the real Preamble and the real Constitution) in the National Archives.
God Bless America.