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Recent Acquisitions on Display at the National Portrait Gallery

The museum shows more than 30 selections, including portraits of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Amerigo Vespucci

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A 2011 portrait of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. by artist Yuqi Wang represents one of the more contemporary faces from the new acquisitions. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Part art museum, part national yearbook, the Portrait Gallery has a constantly expanding collection. From sculptures to prints, photographs to paintings, each year the museum seeks to add both luminaries and lesser-knowns to its galleries.

With dozens of pieces acquired either through donations or bypurchase since 2011, the gallery presents a notable few at regular shows. This season’s installment of new faces features Amerigo Vespucci, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ethel Waters to name a few. Opening today November 9, “Recent Acquisitions,” gives visitors a glimpse of a growing collection.

From stately mezzotints of George Washington and Samuel Adams to bright screenprints of poet Ed Dorn and Chuck Berry, the exhibit speaks to the gallery’s desire to both expand existing categories and enter new territory. “We’re always thinking about how objects will be useful in our installations or special exhibitions, but more than anything we want to enrich the collection with more portraits of significant figures from our history,” says curator Brandon Fortune.

This screenprint of poet Ed Dorn joins a wealth of poet portraits in the collection. Ed Dorn by R.B. Kitaj. Color screenprint, 1966. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

While the museum remains the place to go for portraits of statesmen and women, says Fortune, “We certainly have focused more on contemporary life in the last decade.”

The painting of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (above) represents both the move toward the contemporary and the enduring interest in historically significant figures.

Many of the images have a particular story behind their creation. For example, the painting of Amerigo Vespucci by Charles Wilson Peale in 1816 represents a historic trend from that era. “It was done centuries after Vespucci lived,” says Fortune. “The founding fathers and people who were living in America in the 18th and early 19th century really had a fascination with the early discoverers of America; Columbus, Vespucci, Magellan, Cortez.” Portraits of many of those men were held in the Uffizi Gallery and Fortune says well-to-do people commissioned copies of the works for their own collections. “Thomas Jefferson had a set of them,” Fortune adds.

Fortune says the museum places a premium on works created by one artist of another.  “One always finds a lot of energy there, in portraits that result from that encounter.” To that end, the show includes a print by Wouter Deruytter of fellow artist Keith Haring seated in front of one of his unfinished canvases.

With a well-developed collection of portraits of artists, poets and politicians, the museum is also looking to add scientists, sports figures and others from less represented fields. Fortune says, “We’re always looking to add more figures to enrich a particular category of achievement, but more than anything we’re trying to broaden those categories of achievement.”

Though the selections can at first seem disconnected, the range of sitters, from Fritz Lang to Muhammad Ali, reflects the diversity of our history. Though these figures never met, there is energy in imagining what they might say to each other if they had. To that end, the museum will incorporate many of the works into temporary exhibits, whether it be on the topic of modern verse in America or the development of “cool” as one upcoming Spring 2014 show promises.

Recent Acquisitions” will be at the National Portrait Gallery November 9, 2012 through October 27, 2013. A commissioned portrait of General Colin Powell goes on view outside the exhibition entrance on December 3, 2012.

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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