A single day in a museum – and the turbulent, fascinating history of this country comes alive…

May 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm (Art, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

When I was in high school, American history was not so much taught as drummed into us. The process was strictly chronological and concerned primarily presidents and wars. There was no room for inference or subtlety. It was boring beyond belief.

he truth is, of course, that American history is anything  but boring. That point was driven home for me on a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum. First off: what’s with the double title?  The edifice actually houses two museums. Collectively they are now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Before I introduce several of the paintings I especially admired, I’d like to say something about the building itself. Work on the Old Patent Office was begun in 1836 and completed some thirty years later. It is a grandiose vision in the Greek Revival style, and worth seeing just  for itself. And oh, the riches within!

We spent most of our time in the National Portrait Gallery, specifically in the collection called “American Origins.” Here can be found paintings,  sculpture, and artifacts dating from 1600 to 1900.

We saw many portraits of famous Americans. Even if the subjects were known to us, the artists, for the most part, were not:

General William Tecumseh Sherman, by George Peter Alexander Healy (1866)

Daniel Webster, by Francis Alexander (1835)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Alanson Fisher (1853)

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (1806)

More astonishing was encountering so many figures from our history who were completely new to us:

Ira Aldridge, by Henry Perronet Briggs (c.1830)

Born in 1805, Ira Aldridge was a gifted actor. Unable to pursue his profession in the United States, Aldridge moved to England in the 1820s. He never returned to his native land.

In this painting, he is portraying Othello. A Russian critic commented that “…he was Othello himself, as created by Shakespeare.”

Anne Catharine Hoof Green

After emigrating from the Netherlands, Anne Catharine Hoof Green lived with her husband Jonas in Annapolis, Maryland. Jonas Green  was the editor of the Maryland Gazette; when he died in 1767,  Anne Catharine continued to print the Gazette until her death eight years later.

This daguerreotype of John Brown (1846 or 1847) is a famous image of the uncompromising abolitionist. What is not so well known is that it was made by Augustus Washington, son of a former slave.  While a student at Dartmouth College, Washington took up photography in order to help pay his bills. Eventually he set up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut.


When you click on American Origins (above), you will hear a fragment of the most poignant, evocative music. It is from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Here is the famous “Simple Gifts” from that justly beloved work, paired with some spectacular photographs by Ansel Adams:


  1. kathy d. said,

    Just a comment: What is happening in Texas over the textbook controversy is truly frightening, with U.S. history being rewritten, eliminating the truth, promoting a rightwing agenda, dumbing down education and thus, young people, in the process. This is just a horrendous development and it may spread nationally, as what happens in Texas textbooks, apparently influences much of the country’s education.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kathy, I agree – This is a real concern.

  2. Roberta recommends: an eclectic group « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to life a small community in Maine during the time of the American Revolution. My visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum instilled in me a desire to know more about the history of  this country. In particular, I wished […]

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