|Muhammad Ali, Cat’s Cradle (1942–2016) by Henry C. Casselli, Jr. (born 1946), oil on canvas, 1981. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.2002.2)|
At a recent visit to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum in Philadelphia, I was taken by Brian Tolle’s 2012 conceptual mixed-media sculpture of George Washington, No. 1 (First Inaugural Address). The artist created a clear acrylic resin cast of Washington, with a string of glass beads emerging from the president’s mouth and spilling onto the pedestal base, each bead representing one word from his first inaugural address. This portrait is strikingly similar to the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon’s original life bust of Washington created at Mount Vernon in 1785. Tolle has begun a “Commander-in Chief” series of mixed-media presidential busts that feature symbolic aspects of each president’s public persona. When I walked into another gallery space at this museum, I found an artist portraying a live model in various poses, part of the Fernando Orellana: His Study of Life exhibition, which honors the centenary of the death of the Academy’s influential art teacher Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. Eakins’s teaching program led to a greater emphasis on the study of human anatomy. He included nude models in his classes, a practice new to American art schools in the nineteenth century.
At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Henry C. Casselli Jr.’s 1981 oil portrait of Muhammad Ali, entitled Cat’s Cradle, is a dramatic depiction of the strength and power of this famous athlete, as visible in his towering physique. Per author Donald Hoppes, the cat’s cradle of string “became the central motif of the Ali portrait,” referring to the ropes of the boxing ring and Ali’s unique boxing style. Ali commanded public attention as a 1960 Olympic gold medalist and three-time winner of the heavyweight crown. He also was a dedicated spokesman for social and humanitarian concerns.
|Esperanza Spalding, a Portrait (born 1984) by Bo Gehring (born 1941), time-based media, 2014. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.2014.83)|
In 1966, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically significant subjects and artists from the colonial period to current times. The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program of more than 100,000 records from the museum’s website at http://npg.si.edu/portraits/research.
Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Fortune, Brandon Brame, Wendy Wick Reaves, and David C. Ward. Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with D. Giles Limited, 2014.
Gross, Jennifer R., ed., with contributions by Ruth L. Bohan et al. Société Anonyme: Modernism for America. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Yale University Art Gallery, 2006.
Reaves, Wendy Wick, et al., Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with University of Washington Press, 2002.
Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013.