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Past, Present and Future at the National Portrait Gallery

Washington D.C. contains such a multitude of wondrous galleries and museums that it’s nearly impossible to visit them all. One that can’t be missed, though, is the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture or, as it’s more commonly known, the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery resides inside the Old Patent Office, which itself is worth a trip to see. Stretching an entire city block just west of the Verizon Center, the building features soaring columns and a massive dome, taking cues from Ancient Rome’s Pantheon.

The building just underwent a massive, seven-year long renovation and now boasts an amazing glass-enclosed courtyard that is one of the most attractive sights in the city.

Inside the building is one of largest collections of art in the entire country, split into two separate museums: The Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Center. Each entity gets about half of each floor, but one can wander through the both of them with ease.  Admission to both museums is free.

A trip to The Portrait Gallery begins in contemporary times, with the exhibit “Americans Now,” which runs until July and features stark portraits of famous living U.S. citizens. The collection is eclectic; a snapshot of author Joyce Carol Oates hangs next to a smiling picture of rapper LL Cool J and tennis star Andre Agassi and adjacent to a drawing of Michelle Obama.

A few steps past that exhibit and visitors are whisked to our country’s founding era, with a marble bust of Andrew Jackson and paintings of the framers of the Constitution.

Head up to the next floor to reach the Civil War period.  You’ll find prominent war heroes drawn in dark and gloomy tones, reflecting the mood of the era. On the other side of the floor resides landscapes from the Gilded Age, as artists imagined the burgeoning American Empire. One of the most amazing scenes from the collection is Albert Bierstadt’s The Sierra Nevada’s in America, a sweeping vista of icy peaks and sparkling lakes — his view of what the world west of the Rockies looked like.

Also on the second floor is the Hall of Presidents, which contains portraits of every single American leader, from George Washington to George W. Bush. It’s an amazing collection of work that shows the transition of art from the 1700s to the current decade. The exhibit begins with George Washington’s iconic Landsdowne painting and ends on a decidedly postmodern note, with a trippy and surreal mosaic of Bill Clinton.

Just past the hall is another exhibit from modern times, where you’ll find works from Georgia O’Keefe next to prints by Andy Warhol.  Here you’ll also find some of the performance art from the late 80s and early 90s. One such piece, by Felix Gonzalez Torres, is merely a pile of candy. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece. The sweets represent people diagnosed with HIV, and the candy’s slow dissolving process in your mouth mimics the slow suffering of AIDS victims. Whenever the pile gets low, the stock is replenished, signifying the seemingly endless nature of the disease.

The third floor of the gallery is again a study in contrasts. One begins by entering the Great Hall, unchanged from when it first opened in the mid-1800s. It was once the largest room in America and it served as a showcase for models of recently granted patents. The hall is beautiful, with a tile floor full of inlaid Fleur-de-Lis’s and hand-carved columns working their way to the ceiling.


Past the pre-Industrial room is an exhibit from one of America’s most talented artists: Alexis Rockman. The artist paints massive landscapes that are otherworldly visions, combinations of the past, present and future. His most prominent work is Manifest Destiny, a massive 8’ high by 24’ wide painting of a decaying Brooklyn, flooded due to global warming. In the sky fly birds from modern times. In the water below swim creatures that don’t yet exist. The work is stunningly bright — a visual odyssey that absolutely must be seen. The Rockman exhibit runs at the museum through early May.

Rockman’s work envisions what may become of the world and is a fitting end for a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, which already does a fantastic job showcasing the past and present.

– David

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