The collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, housed in adjoining buildings, provide a unique opportunity for children and their parents to learn about the development of art in America. During this three-hour walk led by an art historian or educator, we’ll use a range of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts as our visual textbook to explore major themes in American history and learn about the methods and materials artists used to make art from the nation’s earliest years to the 20th century.
Starting with the revolutionary period, we’ll examine portraits of such major historic figures as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. As we look closely at their portraits, we’ll discover how to recognize features and details that tell us about their personalities, and learn how these important figures helped shape the nation. We’ll also visit with some less well-known faces such as those from George Catlin’s Indian Gallery and talk about the idea of manifest destiny as illustrated in magnificent landscapes such as Albert Bierstadt’s, Among the Sierra Nevada, and Emmanuel Leutze’s Westward Ho!. Moving into the late 19th century, we’ll spend time with the storied sculpture The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis and Lilly Martin Spencer’s painting We Both Must Fade to learn about ways that women and minorities gained recognition in the late nineteenth-century as artists in their own right. As we pull apart these three themes, we’ll mine the sculptures and paintings we discover for clues of the methods and materials that the artists used to tell their stories.
During the second half of the walk, we’ll shift gears to the twentieth century and focus on the Smithsonian’s rich collections of American folk and contemporary art. Using what we’ve learned about traditional materials and methods for making art, we’ll learn how new industrial technologies and regional traditions have encouraged artists to experiment beyond traditional oil paint, canvas, plaster, and marble. With works like Mr. Imagination’s Bottlecap Figure with Mirror and Deborah Butterfield’s Monekana we'll discover how artists used found objects and the art of disguise to fool our eye. For the older children in the family, this part of the walk might also include an introduction to and discussion of a range of topics including early modernism, non-objective representation, and the rise of installation art.
We’ll cap off our walk by heading upstairs to the Lunder Conservation Center to learn about the ways in which the museum preserves the paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts we’ve encountered on our walk. For the youngest visitors in the group, we may also visit the Luce Center for American Art – the museum’s open storage facility– and conclude our time together with a treasure hunt.
This walk grounds children and their parents in the traditional themes, materials and methods of American art and can be adjusted to the particular needs and age ranges of the children. As with all of our family walks, our docents will tailor the experience for the family.