As the readings for this week make clear, the context within which an artwork is viewed constructs our understanding of it. This includes the physical positioning of the work – from it’s place in the frame frame, to the wall, to the gallery space, to the museum, to the location in a city, etc. – as well as the conceptual and intellectual positioning of the work – within literature and history. What most struck me seeing Samuel Morse’s House of Representatives at the National Gallery of Art were the handling/rendering of the scene itself – the scale of the work, the depth of space, and the luminosity of surface that Morse conveys – and the interplay of Morse’s House of Representatives with its opposite in the room, Edward Savage’s The Washington Family (1789), as well as with the other portraits in the room.
Both Morse’s House of Representatives and Savage’s The Washington Family engage with and conflate themes of art and culture, politics, history and power, and science and technology.
Positioned opposite of one another, the two works are clearly in conversation with one another and contribute to a richer understanding overall.
Most notably, the two works address two opposing institutions that make up American governance, the President and the Congress; just outside of the walls of the NGA, the buildings that house these two institutional bodies stand opposite of one another, the White House and the Capitol.
“Investigate things in relation to their context” (O’Dohery, p.7)
Physically within the gallery space, both paintings open up the room and suggest a sort of theatric performance that is different from reality, but that suggest what the artists idealize reality to be. In the case of Morse’s House of Representatives, he portrays Congress engaging in an orderly and civil debate, whereas in reality Congress was chaotic and unruly as they debated controversial legislations such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821. The red curtains that adorn the walls of the US Capitol mirror the red curtains in Savage’s, The Washington Family, and here these curtains look very much like the red curtains that are typically seen on the stage of a theatre performance. It seems that Savage is also attempting to proactively construct and write history through his “historical painting”: here what lies beyond the stage is untouched land, and the map laid open on his desk as well as the blank globe on the floor suggest military conquest, colonization, and a history of domination that is awaiting to be written on a “blank page” (which of course was in actuality not blank at all). Again considering the two paintings as in conversation with one another, while Morse’s Congress is likely addressing a domestic issue of conquest and domination – over black bodies and slavery – Savage appears more concerned with international dominance and colonization. Given that Washington gestures to the map with a sword and his wife with a fan, we can presume that Savage is implying a political and cultural dominance that the United States has/will have over the rest of the world.
Now let us take a walk outside of the National Gallery of Art. Next door to the National Gallery of Art is the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Both buildings sporting neoclassical architecture, similar to most of the iconic buildings around the National Mall. This classical theme is not limited to the physical architecture of the buildings. These two museums also illustrate classical ideals of exhibitions. The NGA and the NMNH opened during the peak of the ‘modern’ exploration and exhibition. Usually, whatever was considered historical (from a very eurocentric perspective) was placed in art museums. While, things that were not considered ‘euro-historical’, but ‘exotic’, were put into the natural history museums with the natural exhibitions.
Today, one could take a look around the National Mall from the NGA and see few non-neoclassical buildings. Two of these new buildings are, the National Museum of the American Indian(NMAI) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The architecture of these establishments was designed to separate them from the classical look that dominates the National Mall. This was done for many reasons, one being the fact – that the collections within and purpose behind the NMAI and NMAAHC were not founded on western aristocratic exploration.
National Museum of Natural History (1911)
National Museum if the American Indian (2004)
National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016)
Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).
Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.
Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986.