Some people feel very American when they call for instating school prayer, or banning flag burning. These acts of course are empty, valueless, because they don't evoke what is truly great about the United States. This thought occurred to me today at the National Portrait Gallery, the newly re-opened branch of D.C.'s expansive Smithsonian museums. At the gallery, which takes up half of a beautiful neo-classical building that was once the U.S. Patent Office--the other half is the American Art Museum, portraits of famous Americans are accompanied with thorough biographies.
Especially admirable is the series of rooms on the first floor devoted to the 19th century, part of the museum's "American Origins" series. Though the portraits are still and some very formal and stuffy, the descriptions of the subjects--with the portraits in a particularly room grouped together by categories such as Writers, Civil War figures, etc.--bring the subjects alive. One of my favorite portraits features the eminent writers of the mid-18th Century, with Washington Irving in the middle and figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Fenimore Cooper surrounding him. The biography punctures the painting in noting that Irving would have thought the gathering dull and overly uniform. Tid-bits such as that are what make the subjects depicted come alive.
Furthermore, the Civil War era really comes alive, owing to the placards that accompany the portraits. It is difficult to completely fathom a time period when our country was on the brink of a split, and yet, the narratives that were borne of that era survive today--if only ethereally. Portraits of Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody and Daniel Boone are described in terms of those men's significance: as mythmakers of the Wild West. The likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are smaller figures when viewed in their time, if only because they seemed discouraged by the optimistic writing of their contemporaries. Big businessmen Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller become truly admirable in comparison to the CEOs of today, until one sees the portrait of Jay Gould and is reminded that rober barron was an epithet that came about in the late 1800s for good reason.
That this museum is open to the country and the world is part of what makes it so spectacular. This country is hardly perfect, but that its past--when good and when bad--is so accessible is in keeping with the theory of this country.
If you're interested, the National Portrait Gallery is at Washington, D.C. on the corner of 8th and F Street, across from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro.