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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery: Catalog of American Portraits Research Treasures

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery founded in 1966 the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically important subjects and artists from the colonial period to contemporary times.   The public can access the online portrait search program from the museum website of over 100,000 records.  However, the public might not be aware that the Catalog of American Portraits research center holds over 200,000 files of paper documents and photographs on portraiture and biography and is continually expanding.   Scholars have chosen to house at the CAP archives their primary research papers from past publications and exhibitions.   The CAP also has a unique set of costume notebooks of historical portraits which the museum staff can review for dating art works.  The general public and representatives of institutions are welcome to refer to the CAP research service as well as send images and documentation for new portrait collections or updates to survey records.  The CAP program can be accessed at the following National Portrait Gallery website link
Mary Cassatt, by Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, c. 1800-1884, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.84.34, Washington, DC

In 1971, the Catalog of American Portraits commenced a national portrait survey of public and private collections throughout the United States.  However, the CAP has developed a broader international program, which includes American artists portraying foreign figures as well as foreign artists depicting Americans in the United States and abroad.  American artists were drawn to Europe to attend art schools, study masterworks at museums, and interact with their foreign contemporaries.  Many American artists visited or resided in Europe, including George Catlin, John Singleton Copley, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Duveneck, George Peter Alexander Healy, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, John Singer Sargent, Benjamin West, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who became influential leaders abroad.  The greatest interaction between American and European artists took place in the cities of London, Paris, Munich, and Rome.  Benjamin West was appointed historical painter to King George III in 1772 and he served as President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 1792 until his death in 1820.  Benjamin West’s influence drew a circle of American artists to England as his students, including Mather Brown, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, and John Trumbull.  From 1831-1833, the artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse created the famous painting, Gallery of the Louvre, which featured portraits of his contemporaries at the Salon Carré gallery of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Memorable portraits were created of George Catlin by William Fisk; Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas; Auguste Rodin and Claude Monet by John Singer Sargent; Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso; Josephine Baker, Joán Miró, and Jean-Paul Sartre by Alexander Calder.  It is particularly interesting when artists exchanged portraits of each other, as in the cases of Angelica Kauffmann and Benjamin West in the 18th century; as well as Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) and Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Ernestine Prin) in the 20th century.  In 1839, the artist George Catlin created a public sensation in Europe when he brought his American Indian performing group along with his portrait exhibitions of Native Americans to London and Paris.  Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans are currently held at many institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; the British Museum in London; the Museum of Man in Paris; and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.  George Peter Alexander Healy, a leading 19th century artist, was commissioned  by American and European leaders  to create portraits, including the US presidential series, examples of which are held at the National Portrait Gallery and the White House in Washington, DC, and the National Museum of the Château of Versailles in France.   Healy was also the first American artist honored by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, to present his 1875 self-portrait to the international self-portrait collection.  The Uffizi Gallery now holds more than twenty self-portraits of Americans, including Cecilia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, Dwight David Eisenhower, Robert Rauschenberg, John Singer Sargent, and Andy Warhol.  In the 20th century, a number of young American artists came to study and work in Paris, including Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Sam Francis, and Paul Jenkins. 

George Catlin, by William Fisk, oil on canvas, 1849, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.70.14, Washington, DC

From the colonial period onwards, European artists in turn visited America, exploring the different regions, including Auguste Edouart, Jean Antoine Houdon, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, James Sharples and his artistic family, Pavel Petrovitch Svin̕in, and Adolph Ulrich Wertmüller.   New York City, New Orleans, and Washington, DC have drawn a continuous stream of foreign visitors.  In 1873, the artist Edgar Degas created the Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton Office painting now held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Pau, France, and another 1873 version Cotton Dealers in New Orleans at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.   In New York City, such European artists as Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko were leading members of the modern art scene.  In 1920, Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray founded the Société Anonyme (Society Anonymous), which exhibited contemporary art works of over one hundred international artists in New York City.  In 1918, Katherine Dreier created the compelling Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, who has inspired a myriad of progressive portraits by fellow artists in his life time and after his death.

European public collections have a wealth of portraits related to American interest, with the greatest concentration in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy.  Among the public collections of American origin are the American Museum in Britain, Bath; the National Museum of Franco-American Cooperation at the Château of Blérancourt; the American Academy in Rome; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice; the Guggenheim Collections in Bilboa, and Berlin; and the Terra Foundation for American Art in Giverny, and Paris.  However, American portrait collections abroad are also situated within the national collections of foreign countries, including the Tate Collection and the National Portrait Gallery in London; the Louvre Museum and the Orsay Museum in Paris; the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome; and the State Russian Museum in Saint-Petersburg. 

Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy, oil on canvas, 1887, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.65.50, Washington, DC

For the Catalog of American Portraits, I have surveyed on-site numerous public and private collections in America and abroad.  My portrait surveys have stretched across the United States on the East coast from the island of Nantucket, MA to Key West, FL; and on the West Coast from Seattle, WA to San Diego, CA.   In Europe, I have met with representatives of museums, universities, archives, and libraries in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.  Aside from planned meetings with professional colleagues abroad, I have sometimes discovered American portraits in unexpected locations, such as the 1906 bronze statue of George Washington by Gyula Julius Bezerédi in the Budapest City Park (Városliget).  It was a moving experience to find this Washington memorial, proudly inscribed and presented by the Americans of Hungarian Origin society to their former homeland.  One feels a greater sense of national identity following the historic legacy of American portraiture abroad, which highlights the fascinating exchange of American cultural values with their foreign contemporaries.  One also establishes valuable ties with private collectors and colleagues of public institutions in the United States and abroad by documenting the global reach of American portraiture for the Smithsonian Institution’s mandate of the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

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


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