Morse’s House of Representatives depicts a quintessential American image where a man lights a candle in the middle of the House floor. Even though we can appreciate the painting online, it is totally different to see the actual painting on canvas in the National Gallery of Art. It is hard for us to imagine the actual size of this painting when we see the painting for the first time online. The large canvas enabled us to imagine that we are standing inside the House of Representatives and acting like a witness or observer like Morse. It feels like some senators in the painting are watching us when we see the painting at a specific angle. This experience provided us an opportunity to travel across time and space, feeling the atmosphere of the House of Representatives in the 19th century. Only the interface of the museum allows the audience to have such an immersive experience. The build of the room, the lighting, and the decor are part of this interface. The sofas in the exhibition room not only allow visitors to have a rest but also create a space which permits visitors to spend more time appreciating paintings in a more comfortable way.
While we enjoyed viewing this painting, we want to talk more about the NGA as a whole, as an important institution situated on the Washington Mall.
When looking at the National Gallery of Art from the outside, it is hard not to notice the architecture, the way it stands proudly in the middle of the Washington Mall. Its neo-classical architecture echoes with the sentiments of the old masters. Just by looking at it, you know that great works of art are to be found inside. How do you know this? The symbolism of the architecture, of course, the images of majesty, elegance, and elitism that it evokes. In the Alexander article, Mark Lilla is quoted as saying, “The museum is an “empowering” institution, meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience. Any citizen can walk into a museum and appreciate the highest achievements of his culture. If he spends enough time, he may be transformed” (Alexander 1). This is a very idealistic image of the museum, one that is not always translated into reality.
For example, Alexander explains that “The museum idea was barely kept alive in western Europe during the Middle Ages” because of the elitism and wealth associated with the collection of artifacts (Alexander 5). Crusaders stole artifacts and put them into the collections of the wealthy. Lilla’s idea of a place where any citizen can enjoy these artifacts was dashed during this time. It is important to remember that museums have not always been these bastions of culture and learning. For many years in western Europe, this kind of education and culture was reserved for the elite.
The NGA’s look reminds us of this elitism, yet it is not an elitist institution like the private collection of some European noble was. The NGA juxtaposes a classical look commonly associated with high-culture with accessibility. The McClellan article says, “the mission of Washington’s National Gallery of Art “is to serve the United States of America…by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art” (McClellan 19). This is a noble pursuit, one that seeks to educate rather than restrict.
Placing the NGA among other museums fosters a feeling of community between them. The Smithsonian Institution was established for “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world” (Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian). NGA is a critical part of this network of institutions near the U.S Capitol. Even though the NGA is not part of the Smithsonian, it feels like it is. We’ll be honest and say that for years we thought the NGA was part of the Smithsonian. Is this a problem? It depends on who you ask. If we view museums as places to spread knowledge and interest in science and art, maybe it doesn’t matter if we know what building is part of what institution. But if the history of the NGA, and the other museums on the Washington Mall, is vital to our understanding of the artifacts within, then maybe it is imperative we learn about this history.
Overall, the NGA and the Washington Mall represent the foundations of America, the desire to spread knowledge to the masses, without discrimination. The Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol bookend the Mall, one a symbol of freedom, the other, of democracy. Now whether or not America was really built on these sentiments or currently lives up to them is up for debate, but as an idealized image, an almost miniature of the country, the NGA and Washington Mall send a clear message. McClellan says, “After 9/11 the rhetoric of hope and the power of art to mend a divided world have been revived. And museums have also become refuges of authenticity and affect in a society dominated by mass reproduction, media saturation, “reality” television, scripted photo shoots, and sound bites” (McClellan 16). The museum serves as a “soothing environment removed from the complexities and pressure of contemporary society” (McClellan 10). When looking at the function of a museum, we must ask ourselves whether the museum is designed for public education and enlightenment or for creating a space which is isolated from the outside world for people to appreciate beauty and human spirits.
The NGA is both of these things, a place for education and aesthetic tranquility. It is classically designed, evocative of a bygone era where masters painted great works, but it is also accessible to the masses, for the most part. Though we must remember that “where art and museums go, gentrification follows” (McClellan 10). We must take into account the critiques of the museum, and of the NGA, and be wary lest these public places become elitist once again.
The NGA is part of a larger network of museums. There is a network of museums in D.C., where each museum is highly connected to each other, and represent unique themes or functions. Located between third street and fourteenth street, most of these museums belong to Smithsonian Institution.
Take Morse’s works and his achievements as an example, they are separately reserved in different museums and institutions. We first heard of Morse because of his achievement in daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. However, he was originally a history painter whose ambitions were to “advance a strong national art for the Americans” (A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre). We can feel his passion for art and his aesthetic taste from his paintings, like The House of Representatives we saw last week, and Gallery of the Louvre. When we enjoy The House of Representatives in National Gallery of Art, we can easily notice his excellent drawing techniques, especially for the portrait of people in the painting. This is due to Morse’s earlier practice as a portraitist, when he sought financial support from the portrait business. Currently, his work of Self-Portrait is reserved in the National Portrait Gallery. Also, Morse was elected as president of the National Academy of Design in New York. One may ask, why did he abandon his art career? Because of a lack of financial success, Morse ceased painting and moved to daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. We now can see his first prototype telegraph and other early telegraphs in both the Smithsonian American History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Thus, only by connecting them and seeing them all in one picture can we understand the value of Morse’s achievement in a larger ground.
The National Gallery of Art completes the collection of museums, or should we say that it fills the gap of Smithsonian museums in the art field. Before the National Gallery of Art was built (in 1937), there were several Smithsonian museums, including Smithsonian Castle (built in 1849), Arts and Industries Building (built in 1881), National Museum of Natural History (built in 1911), and Freer Gallery of Art (built in 1923). Few of their collections concerned the national image of American art, which is the theme of the National Gallery of Art. The NGA provided a place to celebrate American art, something that no other museum of the era was focusing on.
The history, location, and symbolism of the National Gallery of Art tells us something about its place in society. The NGA, together with the other museums on the Washington Mall, forms a complex system that supports and sustains the timeless value of these collections. The Washington Mall represents the ideal structure of America, mixing education with accessibility, art with scientific enlightenment.
“Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian.” Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian. Smithsonian, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
Alexander, Edward P. & Mary. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.
McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
National Gallery of Art. “A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre”. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxfe3nz80i2GZ0FlWWZORVpWZkk/view. Web. 2012.
Image 1 from Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:National_Gallery_of_Art_-_West_Building_facade.JPG
Image 2 from Dr. Irvine’s link to Washington Mall Map