Hail to the Chiefs

Tuesday, April 03, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 20

WASHINGTON, DC— Armed with a list of places to visit in the capitol city today, we caught the Metro yellow line from Arlington to Gallery Place.  Even on the train, we noticed there were quite a few kids on board.  When we exited and got on the street, the city looked as if a mega summer camp had unloaded all its buses in the streets.  Apparently 83% of America's school kids are on spring break this week.  Of those, we estimate 64% came to Washington with their families or on a group trip.

No empty seats this week
What ever happened to that time-honored tradition of hitting the beach during spring break?  Why would kids want to come to the city instead of throwing a frisbee around in the sand?  And what self-respecting kid wouldn't prefer queuing up for a slushee at the tiki hut over standing in line to enter a museum?

Line extending a full block to enter International Spy Museum
Though the International Spy Museum was on our list of places to visit today, we decided that it wasn't worth standing in line for more than an hour, especially when we discovered that we could retrieve the letterbox inside without actually entering the museum.  Fortunately for us, very few kids were clamoring to make the scene at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. 

Smithsonian American Art Museum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Housed in Greek Revival splendor in the Old Patent Office Building, the American Art Museum boasts an extensive collection of works representing all periods and regions of the nation.  The National Portrait Gallery exhibits portraits of remarkable Americans of all walks of life.  The museums have been located in this structure since 1968, and a six-year exhaustive renovation of the interior was completed in 2006.  Only the third public building approved in the city (after the Capitol and White House), the massive structure took 31 years to build due to political interference and was not completed until 1865.

Although we enjoyed the American art section of the museum also, it was a particular thrill to view some of the iconic images in the National Portrait Gallery— the original works whose reproductions have appeared in countless textbooks and even on some of our currency.  The full-length 8 x 5 ft. Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which provided the face for our one-dollar bills, is here.  Not a reproduction like the one in the White House or Capitol building— the original 1796 oil-on-canvas painting.

This and other famous likenesses of the first President are featured in the Gallery of America's Presidents.  After this very formal type of portraiture, it was quite interesting to see the variety of styles selected in the other Presidential portraits and how they reflected the personalities of their subjects.  Since this collection opened in 1968, Presidents leaving office after that date have had the opportunity to select or sit for the portrait exhibited in the gallery, and their influence is evident in some cases.

When the artist commissioned to paint a portrait of John F. Kennedy for the Harry S. Truman Library, she was fascinated during the 1962 sitting by the changeability of Kennedy's features and inspired to paint a series of likenesses of the President.  Her loose, bold brushstrokes mirror the personality of the valiant naval hero and evoke memories of the many photos of him sailing.

Painted by artist Peter Hurd, this likeness of Lyndon Johnson was intended to be his official portrait at the White House until he called it the "ugliest thing I ever saw."  After this declaration, Johnson, well known for his sense of humor, let it be known that artists around the White House should be seen but not Hurd.

Though it wasn't clear whether Richard Nixon influenced the selection of this portrait, what better way to rehabilitate his image than a likeness by beloved American artist Normal Rockwell?  Revealing that he found the President's appearance elusive, Rockwell admitted that he intentionally flattered Nixon in the portrait, hoping that if he erred it would be to his subject's liking.

This abstract painting of Bill Clinton began with a photo from the cover of New York Magazine.  Artist Chuck Close created a grid on the photograph and the canvas, allowing him to replicate the image on the canvas in a series of abstract sectors.  Clinton selected this as his portrait for the gallery.

Unique among the Presidents, George Bush presented a relaxed, informal pose in an open-neck shirt for this portrait painted by Robert Anderson, a Yale classmate and portrait artist.  At the unveiling, just days before he left the White House, Bush was said to remark, "I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging."

After three and a half hours in the museum, we dropped into the America Eats Tavern.  Opened on July 4, 2011, this "pop-up" restaurant developed by famed Washington chef José Andrés offers historically significant American foods dating back to the 1600s.  The concept was inspired by the What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? special exhibit at the nearby National Archives and is scheduled to close its doors on July 4. 

A too quick visit to the postal museum and Union Station to snag letterboxes, and we were riding full-tilt rush hour trains back to Arlington, arriving just in time for a pleasant evening and delicious meal at the Nam Viet restaurant with Lester and Jane, Ken's family friends from Charlotte.  Arlington residents for 40 years, they regaled us with their knowledge of the area and stories of their screenwriting son and international refugee specialist daughter.

More Photos from Today

Jane and Lester, our charming hosts
Contemporary American art
National Archives

National Postal Museum