Yesterday's Weekend section incorrectly listed the date for a dance performance at the National Portrait Gallery. Colette Yglesias will perform today at 1 and 2 p.m.
"Robert Edge Pine: A British Portrait Painter in America 1784-1788," the carefully researched and well installed exhibit which goes on view today at the National Portrait Gallery, is probably a better show than "poor Pine" deserves. Though he portrayed famous figures, George Washington among them, Pine, if truth be told, was something of a hack.
In four years in the young republic, he produced 90 "portraits of patriots, legislators, heroes and beauties." Most of "poor Pine's" portraits are less beautiful than dull.
His birthdate is not known, but Pine was far from young -- and his career was faltering -- when, in 1784, he left the Old World for the New.
On aug. 23, 1784, George William Fairfax wrote a note from Bath to the father of our country on Pine's behalf: "Poor Mr. Pine is as fine a son of Liberty as any man can be," wrote Fairfax, "and made so many enemies in this selfish nation that he is compelled to go to America to seek bread in his profession." His politics aside, Pine's troubles in his native land may be partially explained by the coarseness of his pictures. "His abilities," noted his contemporary, the British painter Edward Edwards, "were by no means solid or extensive . . . his drawing in general was feeble in the extreme."
But in the 1780s, first-rate portrait painters here were in very short supply. Pine, as Marvin Sadik, the Gallery's director, notes, became the first painter "in the New World to build a gallery for the exhibition of art, the first to give a one-man show, and the first to publish an exhibition catalogue." Pine arrived in time to paint from life George Washington, Ben Franklin, James Madison, John Jay, and other folks of note.
Those that have survived (many were destroyed in a Boston fire in 1803) seem conventionally romantic a hastily conceived. Pine had six dependent daughters (some of whom were painters quite as gifted as their father), and he painted in a hurry for he had many mouths to feed.
Pine settled in Philadelphia, and once showed his portraits there in Independence Hall, but, as Rembrandt Peale wrote, "not finding sufficient employment by portraiture in a city chiefly inhabited by Quakers . . . he was obliged to seek it by traveling into the southern states." Pine gave many of his sitters oddly sloping shoulders; their bodies and their backgrounds appear quickly brushed. He often painted just their heads which he later pieced onto larger canvases so his daughters could complete the portraits he'd begun. "It happened in more than one instance," writes Peale, "that he made mistakes . . . and gave his subjects bodies that belonged to other persons -- on one occasion for a slender figure substituting one of portly dimensions."
"Pine," wrote one contemporary, "was a very small man -- morbidly irritable. His wife and daughters were also very diminutive; they indeed were a family of pygmies."
In 1788 Pine died in Philadelphia, apparently of apoplexy. "Of course he is no master," says Robert G. Stewart, the Gallery's curator of painting and sculpture, who organized the show. "Pine is important because of the people he portrayed." The Pine show will remain on view through Jan. 6.