A celebration of Americans

Story by Jack Foley

A CELEBRATION of Americans and American history through portraits from the painting and photographic collections of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC can currently be viewed at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) until January 12, 2003.

Focussing on the lives of more than 150 men and women who have shaped American history, Americans represents a rich selection of American heroes, writers, statesmen, inventors, educators, musicians, artists and scientists with sitters ranging from Benjamin Franklin and Henry James, to Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson. The National Portrait Gallery, London, is the only European venue for this outstanding exhibition.

Americans brings together 70 paintings and 58 photographs dating from the 1720s to the 1990s. Some portraits include details that tell visitors about the sitter's accomplishments at first glance, while others benefit from insights offered in contemporary descriptions and four mini-documentary films produced and provided by The Biography® Channel, as part of its support of the exhibition.

Curated by NPG Washington's Dr Carolyn Kinder Carr, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, and Dr Ellen G. Miles, Curator of Painting and Sculpture, the exhibition includes portraits in various styles and technique, from the sophisticated paintings of John Singer Sargent and the photographs of Richard Avedon, to work by self-taught artists such as Thomas Badger and William Elwell. Together, these portraits comprise an unparalleled overview of the contribution that individuals have made to American politics, society and culture.

The exhibition will be divided into sections - Independence, New Americans, Freedom, A Social World, Americans Abroad, Men of Letters and 20th Century Performing Arts.

Artists, such as John Singleton Copley, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Alice Neel, and writers, including Edith Wharton, Mark Twain and John Updike, are represented alongside other notable Americans such as Sequoyah, Davy Crockett, Tallulah Bankhead, George Gershwin and Lena Horne.

An exceptional selection of photographs, only included in the London showing of the exhibition, represents, amongst others, legendary American entertainers including Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, Lucille Ball, Leonard Bernstein, Audrey Hepburn, Louis Armstrong and Bill Cosby.

The portrait tradition in the United States of America is richly textured, like the multi-faceted historical narrative it reflects. The paintings and photographs in this exhibition suggest the diverse range of individuals who have shaped the American experience, and introduce the stylistic variety characteristic of portraits of Americans.

A fully-illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with a preface by John Updike and an introductory essay by Dr Carolyn Kinder Carr priced £12.95 (paperback). Additionally, a large-format catalogue of the paintings in the exhibition will be available priced £30 (paperback).

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2H OHE. Tel: 020 7306 0055. Opening times: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am - 6pm; Late Opening Thursday, Friday: 10am - 9pm; Recorded information: 020 7312 2463; Wolfson Gallery & Room 41. Admission £6, concessions £4

GUIDE TO PICTURES: Mary Cassat by Edgar Degas, c. 1880-84, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (main picture)
Louis Armstrong by Lisette Model, c. 1956, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Lisette Model Foundation Inc (1983)

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the NPG website...