Two wonderfully exuberant shows at the National Portrait Gallery are like a "squeeze" -- the 19th-century cocktail party.
Everybody you ever heard of is there in their fine feathers (literally) and best (though sometimes wry) smiles. The air is crowded with good, but gentle, gossip. Portrait painters William Edward West and Chester Harding not only introduce the personages but make them into familiar friends.
"William Edward West (1788-1857), Kentucky Painter" and "A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding (1792-1866) and His Portraits" give both painters their first comprehensive shows. About time! How could they have been overlooked?
If the finish isn't as slick as those highfalutin furriners would have painted -- well, in these United States folks had more fuss, fun and freedom. Snobs who sneer at self-taught 18th-century American painters should be paraded by these portraits until they shout "Glorious!"
Both painters were, as they say, "naturals," who started as itinerant painters. West was born in Kentucky; Harding was born in Massachusetts but began as a portrait painter in Kentucky.
Both also were adept social climbers. They used their talents as painters and storytellers (entertaining one sitter with stories of earlier ones) to ingratiate themselves with people of rank and status, first in the United States and then West in Florence, Italy, and Harding in the British Isles. The shows' catalogues, in the tradition of the Portrait Gallery, are full of extensive scholarship and hilarious stories that tell as much about the history as the humans.
West made his name with a sensuous portrait of George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron, the most popular poet of the day in the United States. Fortunately for West, Byron had the grace to die in Greece as West was finishing the portrait and one of Byron's paramours, Teresa Gamba, Countess Guiccioli.
Closer to home, West's 1838 portrait of the 31-year-old Robert E. Lee knocks down forever the familiar picture of the Confederate general as a war relic of a lost cause.
In looks, if not gallantry, he had a rival on the other side. Leah Lipton, curator of the Harding show, says she has to turn Harding's portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman to the wall every time Estill Curtis Pennington, curator of the West show and a southerner, goes by. In 1865-66, after Sherman's scorched-earth march through Georgia, Harding painted him as a handsome rascal, tight-lipped with brooding eyes. Harding completed the work just before he died and it's amazingly vivid.
West was known for his way with his women subjects, including a woman poet, Felicia Hemans, whom he painted three times, keeping one all his life. A family tradition suggests she was a grand passion, though unfortunately married to a man who deserted her and their children.
In the manner of southerners of the period, he came to visit and stayed a year with the Bingaman family in a plantation outside Natchez. He wrote to his sister that he fell in love with one of the daughters when he was sick, "but since I have got well & got my liberty I have got clear of love in the bargain." He portrays the mother, Catherine Surget Bingaman, with a rueful smile and longing eyes.
West painted "Annette Delarbre" after the story by Washington Irving. The girl, whose lover was thought drowned, has a catatonic look. A man puts his finger to another girl's forehead, suggesting the other girl is "touched in the head."
Chester Harding painted the famous people of his day, warts and all. Indeed, one collector recognized a portrait in an antique shop as James Monroe because of the detail with which Harding had painted the president's wart. The painting of Daniel Boone was rolled up and stored for so long that the head had to be cut off and remounted. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the richest man of his day (1828), looks as though he just turned Harding down for a loan.
Chief Justice John Marshall, to the contrary, seems to have just said something witty, profound and kind. Emily Marshall, touted as the most beautiful woman in Boston, seems to have rather frightened Harding into painting less than his best, though Lipton points out that he painted her in a similar pose and dress to that in his most popular English portrait, of a London beauty.
Harding's self-portrait shows a genial man, clearly flirtatious.
But perhaps his most amazing painting was his first, or at most his second, an 1818 portrait of his long-suffering wife, the mother of his nine children. Caroline Woodruff Harding once noted that of their 24 years of marriage, he was home only 12. Lipton starts her catalogue with this vivid explanation by Harding of how he began to paint:
"I thought of it by day, and dreamed of it by night, until I was stimulated to make an attempt at painting myself. I got a board; and . . . I began a portrait of my wife. I made a thing that looked like her. The moment I saw the likeness I became frantic with delight: it was like the discovery of a new sense."