Walking through the entrance of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s “American Women” exhibition,a commanding 4-foot,oil painting of African-American singer Leontyne Price meets viewers.
Price is only one of 65 noteworthy American women featured in the exhibition,which opened June 7 and continues through Dec. 1. Women included in the display come from diverse backgrounds such as arts,entertainment,politics and science.
Carolyn Carr,National Portrait Gallery deputy director and chief curator,said part of the museum’s mission is to collect artworks of people who have made significant contributions to the history and culture of America.
“Our first consideration is,’Has the individual made an important contribution to society?'” she said. “We want to know if the person has influenced America in one way or another.”
Viewers will find the gallery tucked three levels underground in the S. Dillon Ripley Center’s International Gallery. Upon entering the spacious room,the artwork is displayed so visitors can travel in a circular motion to view the entire display.
The “American Women” exhibition is the first show for the gallery in the D.C. area since the closing of the National Portrait Gallery for renovations in January 2000.
“It’s a way to get our collection out to the public while the building is closed for renovations,” Carr said. However,other series such as the “Brush with History” exhibit have traveled nationally to continue the public’s involvement with the gallery.
The “American Women” exhibit includes paintings,drawings,photographs and sculptures. Many are mounted against burgundy-colored walls while others occupy space against white walls. “We’re not restricted by medium,” she said. “[The exhibit] shows the great strength and leadership of women provided over numerous avenues. It’s a way of looking at the numerous ways women have contributed to the rich fabric of our country.”
For example,the exhibit includes a 1954 photograph of Marilyn Monroe taken in Korea. The picture shows the Hollywood star making an appearance for the GIs.
Another example of a woman in the show is Marian Anderson. The painting features the African-American singer at the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert after the Daughters of the American Revolution blocked Anderson’s appearance at Constitution Hall because of her race.
Other women include Olympic medallist Jackie Joyner-Kersee,abolitionist Lucretia Mott,biologist Rachel Carson,fiction writer Carson McCullers and former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
Carr said she encourages people to see the exhibit because they can see what the women they have heard about look like and learn about some women who are important but not as well known.
“I think many people will be familiar and unfamiliar with the Americans in this exhibition,” she said. “Here’s an opportunity to learn about someone with a distinguished career.”
The selections in the exhibit range from occupying an entire wall panel to post card size. Small panels giving short summaries of the woman’s accomplishments and life accompany each work.
“We tell you the significance of that individual,” she said. Carr said she wanted women included in the exhibit who represented a range of backgrounds and accomplishments.
“It’s the interweaving of these personalities that gives the texture to the fabric of our country,” she said. The exhibition is on display in the Ripley Center from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is free to the public. Also,a free film series highlighting women in the exhibition will be presented each Thursday starting June 13.
The National Portrait Gallery will reopen from renovations in late 2005.