Portraits can reveal to us what is most singular and significant about a person merely by inviting us to look closely at the individual's unique face, form and body. These details, and the settings and the clothes worn by the subjects, can offer wonderfully engaging biographies—the stories of lives, set down not in words and paragraphs but with paint, pencil, stone or bronze. The stories change, of course, as people and the times change, which is why the curators and other staff at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) are right now looking for new stories, about new faces, and new artists who can contribute to the gallery's widely esteemed collection.
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In June, the NPG began accepting entries to its Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, the first of its kind in the United States. Artists from around the country and all walks of life, emerging and renowned professionals alike, will vie for awards that include significant cash prizes and, perhaps more important to the artists, the opportunity to display their work in the gallery's lead exhibition when the NPG reopens, once ongoing renovations are complete, in July 2006. Furthermore, the winning artist will receive a commission to portray a remarkable living American; that portrait will become part of the NPG's permanent collection. (On-line entries can be submitted until September 6; see the gallery's Web site, for details.)
The NPG's search for fine portraits by unknown and up-and-coming artists was made possible by a generous gift from Virginia Outwin Boochever, who for nearly 20 years volunteered as a docent at the gallery. Mrs. Boochever not only appreciates the special beauty of fine portraiture, she also understands its real historical value and lasting cultural impact. As a result, she wanted to find a way to encourage the art of portraiture in this country and draw attention to the way portraits preserve the history of the United States. The triennial competition she has endowed will guarantee that future generations can share her appreciation. While the first competition focuses on painted and sculpted portraits, future contests will invite artists to contribute drawings and watercolors as well as photographs, films and even digital and electronic works.
This year's inaugural Outwin Boochever competition highlights the important roles of the NPG. The gallery keeps and collects the best portraits of our country's leading historical and modern figures, from politicians and businesspeople to scientists and artists. Visitors can see our national history as told, indirectly and subtly, through human faces; the gallery's rooms are like many exciting chapters in our unfolding and ever-evolving national drama. But portraiture is not just a record of our shared past, a series of representations showing, for example, how a Civil War general stood or how people through the years dressed. As we develop, new portraits must tell the latest stories. In the coming years, the gallery will continue to promote portraiture as a vibrant form of expression and will support talented and creative younger artists.
To start, the NPG will begin a long-term collaboration with artists to commission new portraits of living Americans. Portraitmakers, whether working in oils or painting in tiny pixels on a computer monitor, embark on nothing less than a quest to capture in an image the very essence of an individual. As they work, the artists are also telling us about themselves and their unique ways of seeing. We can all look forward to experiencing the variety of vision that the Outwin Boochever contestants will bring to the Smithsonian.