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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Hidden Treasures: American Artists’ Self-Portraits

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

In 1966, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically notable subjects and artists from the colonial period to current times.  The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program from the museum website of over 100,000 records.  The CAP program can be reviewed at the following National Portrait Gallery website link

Self-Portrait, by John Singleton Copley, 1780-1784, oil on canvas,
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.77.22

Artists’ self-portraits are one of the hidden treasures of the Catalog of American Portraits.  Our museum research center lists public collections which include American artists’ self-portraits, such as the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Academy of Design, New York City; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Royal Academy of Arts, London; American Academy in Rome; and the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.  Artists have been encouraged to create self-portraits for display at academy and museum collections.  The Royal Academy of Arts in London holds a remarkable 1793 oil painting of Benjamin West, who served as the Academy president from 1792 until his death in 1820.  He portrays himself formally seated in the president’s chair with symbols of his artistic and intellectual interests.  Benjamin West drew a circle of American artists to England as his students, including John Singleton Copley.  Circa 1780-1784, Copley depicted himself in a reflective mood within a rondel bust painting.  His gaze is averted away from the viewer suggesting that he might have used two mirrors for this unusual pose.

Self-Portrait, by Sarah Miriam Peale, circa 1818, oil on canvas, 
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.84.178

In 1822, Charles Willson Peale presented himself in The Artist in His Museum, drawing a curtain to reveal an exhibition hall and his multi-faceted achievements as an artist, naturalist, educator, and museum founder.  His niece Sarah Miriam Peale is believed to be the first female artist in America to earn a living from her profession.  In 1824, she was also one of the first women elected to membership in the Pennsylvania Academy.    In this circa 1818 oil painting, Sarah Miriam Peale gazes engagingly at the viewer with a slight smile that is characteristic of many of her portraits.  Her uncle Charles Willson Peale was impressed with the life-like quality of her self-portrait. 

The artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse became a founder in 1826 of the National Academy of Design in New York City, and his self-portraits are held at the National Academy and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  In his circa 1809-1810 miniature, Morse depicts himself in the process of painting, holding his paint brush and palette.  Morse is well known for his creation of the 1838 model for the modern telegraph.  However, he is considered one of America’s leading artists of the romantic school.

George Peter Alexander Healy was a  celebrated portraitist  and the first American artist honored by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to present his 1875 oil portrait to the international self-portrait collection.  In this painting, Healy employs a frontal pose, confidently looking directly at the viewer.  The Uffizi Gallery features more than twenty art works by Americans, including Cecilia Beaux, John Singer Sargent, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.   A leading portraitist and educator, Cecilia Beaux reveals a remarkable artistic evolution from the youthful 1894 self-portrait at the National Academy of Design to her somber 1925 composition at the Uffizi Gallery.   

Self-Portrait, by Lee Simonson, circa 1912, oil on canvas, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.77.239

Self-Portrait with Squash, by Stanton MacDonald-Wright, 1951, oil on wood,
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.81.119

In the 20th century, artists experimented with self-portraiture as a vehicle for their interests and explorations.  Before World War I, painters Lee Simonson and Stanton MacDonald-Wright formed a friendship and were both influenced by their acquaintance with the progressive, contemporary Parisian art circles.  They shared an interest in bright, rich colors and forms in transition.  Both admired such Post-Impressionist artists as Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne.   In circa 1912 Self-Portrait, Lee Simonson depicts himself in a colorful composition with a still-life and dynamic, patterned interior setting.  Simonson used his early experiences as a painter to become a major American theater and exhibition designer.  His friend Stanton MacDonald-Wright explored color and abstract forms.  In the 1951 oil Self-Portrait with Squash, his face is barely visible in the cubistic, floating composition.  MacDonald-Wright is highly regarded for his contribution to the development of color theory and the abstract art movement.  During his career, Chuck Close has redefined the nature of self-portraiture in his neo-realistic photographic style.  He painted a monumental self-portrait in 1996 for the American Academy in Rome. 

Contemporary portraiture is continuously expanding this sense of experimentation in terms of concept, technique, and medium.  Exciting and thought-provoking self-portraits are an integral part of the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.  American artists are encouraged to enter in this portrait competition which takes place every three years with the fifty finalists’ art works exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.  

-Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
 Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits


Carolyn Kinder Carr and Ellen G. Miles; foreword by Marc Pachter; with an essay by Margaret C.S. Christman, A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.  Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 2000.
Ann C. Van Devanter and Alfred V. Frankenstein et al., American Self-Portraits, 1670-1973. Washington DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, exhibition held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1974.

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