The Changing Face of American Portraiture

National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter with
National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter with "Large Head" by Nina Levy. Pachter says the gallery's focus is on portrayal -- who is depicted and how. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Here's John Updike, oiled on canvas -- and doesn't he look young? Here's Calvin Klein, squatting cheerfully on a table, surrounded by his own designs. Here's a craggy Robert Altman, a preening Tom Wolfe, a blissed-out Mia Hamm, Hillary Clinton, Shaquille O'Neal . . .

"And Toni Morrison," the museum director says, gesturing toward a formidable figure emerging from a stark white background.

The National Portrait Gallery is back, with a new look and some new faces on the walls. The gallery is to reopen Saturday, after six years of much-needed rehab on the historic building it shares with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Floor plans have been rejiggered. Lustrous new paint has been applied. But you'd have to know this strange institution unusually well to notice the more subtle changes.

That's where today's tour guide comes in.

Marc Pachter has been director of the Portrait Gallery since 2000, but he goes back further than that: He first came to the Smithsonian, in 1974, as the gallery's chief historian. The place was then just six years old, but even before it opened, many saw it as a musty embodiment of 19th-century notions: that museums should be celebratory pantheons, and that history was driven primarily by great men (and the occasional great woman).

Congress had authorized the gallery to collect images of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States." Part of Pachter's job, as historian, was to certify the "significance" of potential acquisitions before the National Portrait Gallery Commission voted them out or in.

"White men on horses" is his shorthand for the original interpretation of this mandate.

In its early years, the gallery couldn't even collect photographs, because the Library of Congress threw a hissy fit at the prospect of competition. This was a definite problem, because old-fashioned portraiture had declined as photography boomed.

As for the likes of Updike, Klein, Morrison et al.: They'd never have made the permanent collection. After all, they're alive . Under the old rules, designed to exclude flash-in-the-pan pretenders, no one could be admitted who hadn't been dead 10 years.

Pachter has begun his tour in the gallery's "Americans Now" exhibit, in part because it's the first thing you'll get to when you enter through the F Street door. But it's also because he's officially trashed the 10-year rule -- a mustiness-reduction measure at least as important as roof repairs and brightened walls.

The inclusion of contemporary figures is the most dramatic change in the gallery's philosophy. But there have been other adjustments as well.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company