Accessibility links

Breaking News

Fresh Look for Two Art Museums in Washington


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.


And I'm Steve Ember. This week, come along to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. These two museums in Washington, D.C., have re-opened after six years of renovation work.


The two collections are housed in a huge and historic building of white stone. The building dates back to eighteen thirty-six. It was where inventors established claims for their inventions.

The Old Patent Office Building became part of the Smithsonian Institution in nineteen sixty-two. It is now the Smithsonian Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.


The renovations cost more than two hundred eighty million dollars. Congress and private donors provided the money. There is no charge to visit the museums.

Space for showings is much bigger now with the new look. The roof is new. Workers also redid the floors. Hundreds of windows have been improved. Skylights have been re-opened.

Elizabeth Broun is director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She talks about the importance of the additional natural light. This is especially true for some works, like the colored glass windows by the artist John La Farge, who died in nineteen ten.

Many people used to make separate visits to see the two collections. Now, the museums share a common main entrance. In fact, they seem to melt into each other.

The National Portrait Gallery is on the east side of the first floor of the building. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, known as SAAM, is on the west side.


In SAAM, traditional paintings share the museum with old silver-print photographs and hangings of woven material. Sculptures formed from steel and stone share space with works made from bottle tops and egg containers.

We stop at one of the works of fine art, a nineteen thirty-two oil painting of the New York City skyline. The work is simply called "Manhattan." Georgia O’Keeffe painted it.

When we think of Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the first things we think of is flowers. She liked to paint flowers. Sure enough, we see three of them positioned among the colorful, abstract shapes of the tall buildings.

The artist once said of this work: “One cannot paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”

Georgia O'Keeffe died in nineteen eighty-six, at the age of ninety-eight.


On now to a technological creation from nineteen ninety-five. The video artist Nam June Paik called it “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.”

Paik used more than three hundred televisions to create a standing video map of the United States. Televisions within each state present all sorts of images, including scenes from famous Hollywood movies. Bright neon lights mark the borders of the states.

Nam June Paik was born in nineteen thirty-two in Seoul, Korea. He lived in the United States for many years. He died in January at the age of seventy-three.

His "Electronic Superhighway" is twelve meters wide and four and one-half meters tall. It is so big, it occupies its own room.


Some of the artists whose works appear in the Smithsonian American Art Museum are not very well known.

Martin Ramirez was born in eighteen eighty-five. He was an immigrant from Mexico. He created folk art with pencil, watercolor, small pieces of paper joined together -- whatever materials he could find. His works of people and places are densely drawn and highly detailed. Markings are often repeated.

To know more about the artist is to know that this was the work of a troubled mind. Doctors identified Martin Ramirez as paranoid schizophrenic. He spent many years in mental hospitals in California.


Now it is time to look at some other folk art -- like a giraffe made of metal bottle caps. The unidentified artist also used rubber, glass, animal hair and sheet metal.

A retired coal miner painted a picture of a train carrying coal. Jack Savitsky had worked in the mines for thirty-five years. He produced the oil painting in an art class after poor health forced him to retire. Smoke rises from the engine as the train climbs a hill.


The National Portrait Gallery is a collection of almost twenty thousand paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photos. These are the faces of people who have influenced American history and culture. Some are easy to recognize; others are nameless images from long ago.

We see the faces of people who helped build America. Laborers from the Industrial Revolution. Immigrant settlers.

We also see Native Americans and those whose people arrived as slaves from Africa.

We see cowboys and farmers and people left jobless by the Great Depression.

And we see Americans of today.


A good way to start a visit to the National Portrait Gallery is to see one of America’s best-known portraits. The painting of George Washington is by Gilbert Stuart. The first president appears as a tall, aging statesman. He is looking toward his right and has his right hand extended.

The painting is known as the “Lansdowne" portrait. A very wealthy senator and his wife commissioned the work in seventeen ninety-six for the first Marquis of Lansdowne. The marquis was an ally in the British Parliament during the American Revolution.

The portrait had been on loan. A thirty million dollar gift in two thousand one permitted the gallery to buy the painting. The gift came from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The director of the gallery, Marc Pachter, calls the Lansdowne portrait the jewel of the collection.


The National Portrait Gallery exhibits portraits of all the American presidents.

These include a portrait of Lyndon Johnson by an artist who received much praise for his art, Peter Hurd. But Johnson, who became president in nineteen sixty-three, disliked this portrait. It was too traditional and official-looking for him. So he rejected it for the White House.


Another, very different kind of portrait at the gallery is of Marilyn Monroe. Andy Warhol used a silkscreen print on paper to make this image of the actress. Her famous blonde hair has an orange-ish look.

A graphite drawing by Elaine de Kooning from around nineteen sixty-five shows jazz musician Ornette Coleman playing his saxophone. Wendy Wick Reaves is the head of prints and drawings at the gallery. She points out areas of uneven and unclear pencil marks in the drawing. She says these are meant to represent the feeling of freedom in jazz.


Also in the National Portrait Gallery is a painted-wood sculpture of Rosa Parks. The civil rights activist is being seized by agents of the law. The sculpture is by Marshall Rumbaugh.

In nineteen fifty-five, Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. That incident helped launch the modern civil rights movement.

Visitors can also find a portrait of basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq has his hand over his face. We see just one eye looking out of this black-and-white photograph by Rick Chapman.


A special exhibit celebrates the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman. Historian David Ward notes that Whitman had a connection to the building that houses the two museums today.

For a while, the poet worked there in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. During the Civil War, he helped the wounded in a hospital set up in the building.


The Old Patent Office Building is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. People say it is one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington. And why not? A building that houses some of the finest works of art of a nation should itself be a work of art.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can see some of the art we talked about, and get a transcript of this show, at We hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.