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Monday, October 24, 2016

Portraiture in Transition

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)
Portraiture has been in transition since the early twentieth century and has evolved into new means of expression in contemporary art. In 1912–13, Man Ray created a dynamic, cubistic oil portrait of the notable photographer Alfred Stieglitz, now at Yale University in New Haven. Stieglitz was an influential editor, publisher, and owner of a succession of galleries in New York City, which were gathering places for artists to view the latest avant-garde American and European art and photography from 1905 to 1946. In 1918, Katherine Sophie Dreier painted an abstract, symbolic oil portrait of the artist Marcel Duchamp that is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York. Dreier was a leading patron of modern art and noted, “Instead of painting the sitter as seen ordinarily in life, the modern artist tries to express the character . . . through abstract form and color.” In 1920, Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray founded the Société Anonyme in New York City, as the first “experimental museum” in America for contemporary art, which grew to have a large following of international members. Alexander Calder used this organization to exhibit his “mobiles,” as Duchamp named his moving sculptures. Calder also created whimsical, moving wire portraits of leading figures. One of his most popular series was of the celebrated dancer Josephine Baker, who performed in Paris during the late 1920s.

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)
Commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Bo Gehring’s mesmerizing, monumental digital video portrays jazz musician Esperanza Spalding at close range, lying down. The camera starts at her feet and slowly moves upward to her head, accompanied by Wayne Shorter’s Tarde (1974). Gehring notes that “minute actions like breathing and pulse are living, vibrant elements” of the portrait image, which “captures emotional response over time.” Meanwhile, video artist Bill Viola believes the camera is the keeper of the soul. This November, the Portrait Gallery’s first media art exhibition, Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait, will bring a new dimension of color and kinetic energy to images of the human figure.

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

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.

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