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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Catalog of American Portraits: A Land of Little Discoveries

When I began working for the Catalog of American Portraits ten years ago, the first lesson was that the CAP is not a catalog, so much as it is a taxonomy—a way of organizing information—of American Portraiture.  While we call it a catalog, it is really more of a library.  Sometimes, individuals call on our inquiry line and wish to order a copy of the Catalog of American Portraits and we have to explain to them that it is a large file room which in no way resembles either a card catalog (except that the archive is in drawers) or the Sears Catalog and Wishbook many of us remember from our youth.   The Catalog of American Portraits is, simply put, fifty-plus years of research on American portraits which is comprised of a survey of every portrait that a team of researchers has located in public and private collections, either featuring the portrait of an American, or featuring a portrait painted or sculpted by an American artist.  It contains upwards of 200,000 files and it is an ongoing survey.

Interesting works fill the collection, and occasionally, a work of some distinction will surface due to an inquiry or scholarly research.  Years ago, a local writer named Elizabeth Brownstein was working on a book called Lincoln’s Other White House.  While we were unable to locate the particular portrait of Lincoln she was seeking—an image of Lincoln in a nightgown writing the Emancipation Proclamation by candlelight—we were able to show her an interesting array of other works featuring our sixteenth president.  Among those works was a hand carved Native American totem from the Tongass tribe of the Tlingit Indians in Alaska, a totem featuring an image of President Lincoln and thought to be the only work in that form featuring an American President.  The totem is several feet tall and kept at the State Museum of Alaska in Anchorage; it is called Proud Raven.  The author, Ms. Brownstein, was so taken by the image she published it in her work.

Another image I found in the files during this period was from a Smithsonian collection, though not our own at the NPG.  It was also an image of President Lincoln—it was a na├»ve drawing of the president executed by no less than folk singer Woody Guthrie.

For Abraham Lincoln alone the catalog reflects that there are dozens of images in collections in the Washington DC area and hundreds of images of him in collections throughout the United States in every medium possible—painted on canvas, painted on wood, life masks, death masks, sculptures, textiles—and yes, even a carved Native American totem.

In scope, the goal of the creation of the CAP was to build a body of information about portraits of “historically important figures” in collections everywhere, public and private, using a team of researchers who would photograph, measure, and record available information on a portrait-by-portrait basis.  
Warren Perry
National Portrait Gallery

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