My wife and I were in Washington, D.C., the week after the thirty-five-day government shutdown ended. On Tuesday, when the Smithsonian museums reopened, we decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery. We had been there a few years ago, but it is an enormous and eclectic collection always worth revisiting.
We entered the building shortly after it opened at 11:30. Much to our surprise and pleasure, we were greeted by two of the museum’s administrators, a woman and a man. They introduced themselves, shook our hands, and exclaimed their gratitude for our visit and their relief and excitement that the shutdown had ended and the nation’s “cultural heritage” was once again available to the American people. I have rarely been greeted with such enthusiasm in any public setting, let alone a government facility. We were informed that there is a bill before Congress stipulating that national museums and parks remain open during any future federal government shutdown. We agreed that would be a good thing. I suggested that it would also be helpful if legislators were not paid during government shutdowns, a proposal our greeters felt compelled to be more circumspect about.
Our first destination was an exhibit titled “Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today,” a series of drawings, paintings, and photographs gleaned from the museum’s collections and evidently inspired by the contemporary craze for selfies. A number of the usual suspects were featured, including Andy Warhol, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, and the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence. Among the most striking were works by Thomas Hart Benton, the novelist Ralph Ellison, and the much-celebrated “realist” painter Edward Hopper. Benton’s Self-Portrait with Rita is a large, brightly colored canvas dominated by the chiseled torso and arms of the shirtless artist, a bronzed Adonis towering above his companion. Presumably there is an element of irony in the depiction—or is it just egotism? Hopper’s charcoal drawing shows him as a strikingly handsome and intense twenty-one-year-old, with a long jawline and a strong chin. Ellison’s pencil sketch is a small but remarkable likeness, which pays special attention to his intense gaze and full lips. Ellison, one of my favorite essayists, seems to have been as forthright in his drawings as he was on the page.