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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery: Rich in Research Resources

The Center for Electronic Research and Outreach Services (CEROS) comprises reference and online programs for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG).   Services available for the public include the NPG Collections Information System; the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP) research center; and the NPG website collection search program for NPG/CAP collections.   In 1966, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically important subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present.   The public can access the online portrait search program from the museum’s website of about 100,000 records.  However, the researcher might not be aware that the CAP center holds nearly 200,000 files of documents and photographs related to portraiture and biography.  The CAP maintains an ongoing survey program initiated in 1971, for recording portraits in private and public collections in the United States and abroad.  CEROS staff and interns continue to add digital images for the computer portrait records, with over 40,000 digital images on the NPG Collections Information System.  Scholars have chosen to house at the CAP archives their primary research papers on portraiture from past exhibitions and publications for such artists as Chester Harding, George Peter Alexander Healy, and Robert Edge Pine.   The research center also has a unique set of costume notebooks of historical portrait photographs which the museum staff can review for dating art works.

The National Portrait Gallery’s CEROS center has assisted professional and private researchers, from scholars, historians, and curators in research and exhibition development; writers, publishers and media representatives in search for image sources; to individuals seeking information about family portraits and genealogy.   Our reference staff has provided guidance for a myriad of projects, including the US Department of the Treasury review of presidential portraits for currency design; public television historical documentaries; and educational programs at museums and universities.   The CEROS center’s encyclopedia of portraiture allows the researcher to compare and relate portraits of sitters or artists from numerous private and public collections with the online portrait search program or computer reports generated by the museum staff.   For example, a comparison can be created with the portraits of artist Mary Cassatt and writer Langston Hughes, which depict the imaginative and creative force of these two subjects.*  One can also review a selection of the Thomas Jefferson portraits at the following website link of the Smithsonian Institution Collection Search Center program.

The CEROS center has united relatives through their ancestral research.  Descendants of notable figures in history, such as George Catlin, Stephen Collins Foster, Benjamin Rush, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, have visited the National Portrait Gallery’s research center to review ancestral portrait documentation.   In 1995, a researcher came to the CAP archives to view the portraits of his ancestor William Whipple, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  It was remarkable that the researcher’s own profile still closely resembled his ancestor’s portrait features of two centuries ago.

Patricia H. Svoboda, CEROS Research Coordinator
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Center for Electronic Research and Outreach Services

PS - Check out the over 150,000 documents and images when browsing the Collections Search Center for National Portrait Gallery.

*Image Captions:
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926), Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait, watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, c. 1880, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.76.33
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Langston Hughes, by Winold Reiss (1886-1953), pastel on illustration board, 1925, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.72.82

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