At the Portrait Galley, Private Art Collections Become Public

It is a widely held belief that in the largely political climate of Washington, D.C., more often that not, what you see is not necessarily what you get

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It is a widely held belief that in the largely political climate of Washington, D.C., more often that not, what you see is not necessarily what you get. And that some of the most interesting aspects of people's lives—including the more fascinating stories— are those rarely seen by the public. The same could be said of portraits.

Washington, D.C. has a rich tradition of portraiture, its works of art frequently displayed in the public collections of museums throughout the city. But not much is known about the pieces held in private collections, until now. For the first time ever, Washington-area collectors have opened the doors to their homes and allowed visitors a peek into their private collections. The resulting exhibition, "Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections," sheds light on some of the city's most fascinating public figures, as well as the artists who immortalized them.

"We wanted to give you a sense of American portrait traditions, but also the portrait in America," says Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery. "I would say that this is not a perfect rendition of those traditions; it is not meant to be, but rather, it's meant to give you a glimpse into portraiture in America and the American tradition."

Carr and co-curator, Ellen G. Miles, chair of the museum's department of painting and sculpture, explain that there are three reasons why people tend to possess portraits— they have inherited them, they have collected them for their artistic merit, or the owner sat for his/her own portrait. Each piece is largely personal and yet the story behind its creation reveals greater social context for the time period in which it was created.

"Our reason for selecting things was both the artistic merit and for the interesting stories that they told about the coming together of the sitter and the artist," says Carr. Getting people to pose for portraits, apparently, wasn't the hard part; but getting collectors to part with them for the exhibition, took a bit more finesse. Collaborator Py Pie Friendly helped the curators connect with and assuage the owners, because as Carr says, she "knows everybody and is persuasive as the dickens."

The show is laid out chronologically, with works ranging in date from 1750 to 2008,  featuring mostly American subjects sitting for portraits by American artists. Older portraits tell the fascinating stories of the Washington's wealthy and well-connected, with many portraits remaining in the same family for generations. The artists featured in the exhibition run the gamut from President (and amateur portraitist) Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), whose small, yet charming portrait of his wife Mamie marked the beginning of a new hobby, to the silk-screen prints of well-known artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who once famously called Washington, D.C. "Hollywood on the Potomac," and came to town to do the portraits of well-known Washingtonians, including former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn (b. 1941) and the socially and politically well-connected Ina Ginsburg (1928-1987).

The show is also, decidedly Washington, featuring portraits of well-known public figures, like Gwendolyn Cafritz (1910-1988), as well as little-known Washingtonians whose contributions to the local art scene were a surprise to even the curators.  One small gallery, containing pieces from the collection of Robert L. Johnson, tells the story of the Barnett Aiden Aden Gallery, and sheds light on the history of the first gallery opened in Washington, D.C. by an African-American in 1943.

"Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections" is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until September 5.

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