Saturday, May 9, 2009

Memorials and Portraits in D. C

We planned a day in downtown D. C. having chosen to visit the World War II Memorial and the National Portrait Gallery. We chose to drive rather than take the Metro this time, taking the challenge of maneuvering in the snarl of traffic and finding a parking space on the street. So prepared with our GPS, we headed east from Fairfax, over the Potomac River on US 50.
Aha, we got lucky! There was a spot right on Constitution Avenue across from The Federal Reserve (with armed guards patrolling) and just a short walk from the memorials.

As we walked the winding sidewalks past the Vietnam Wall and the impressive sculpture honoring the battlefield nurses, the clouds and rain gave a certain peace.

Our first thought was that
anyone should be impressed by the WWII memorial. As you step through the massive columns, one for each state, all adorned with wreaths, you read quotes describing the impact of these events of 1941 through 1945.

A remarkable display of bronze plaques telling the story from Pearl Harbor to the celebration of the end of the war give a clear picture of this episode in history.

This memorial is situated so that standing in the array of fountains in the middle, facing west, you look directly over the Reflecting Pond at the Lincoln Memorial. And then, doing an about face, directly in your site is the Washington Memorial and the Capitol. What more appropriate than that the sacrifices of many during this time would be honored in this spot. Well done.

After taking as much time as we needed at the memorials we worked our way about a mile northwest to 9th and G St NW to our museum site for the day. As I mentioned, driving through the city can be frustrating, but if you get advance directions, maneuver carefully and take your time, it is possible. The attendant at the subterranean parking garage assured us that for a nominal fee of $12.00 we would get back to our vehicle, as long as we were there by 9:00 pm. So we found a spot four floors underground and left the Jeep for our six to eight hours of exploring. It turned out that we had a nice lunch, an interesting museum experience and topped it off with a libation at a local watering hole.

But what about the museum? Why this one? Of course, there are numerous choices in our nation's capitol, but we chose to start with one that neither one of us had visited before, the National Portrait Gallery. We knew little about it except that the portraits of the presidents are there. As we learned , there is much more to know. Actually the building itself is spectacular. Begun in 1836 and completed in 1868, it includes porticoes modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. One of the displays inside commemorates Abraham Lincoln's inaugural ball held in the building in 1865 in the stupendous third floor hall that was also a Civil War hospital. The building was originally the U. S. Patent Building holding displays of many American inventions. In addition to the Portrait Gallery it houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The art, of course, is the reason for the museum. But the complete attraction is the way that the story of America is told using the art. Each piece includes a snippet of history taking place at the time, how the subject of the piece fits into the history and the relationship of the artist to the events of that time. Just one small example...... there's a photograph of President Eisenhower in the reviewing stand of his inaugural parade in 1953 being lassoed by Cowboy Monte Montana on horseback. The short historical vignette tells about how Dwight Eisenhower won 36 of 48 states in his presidential race against Adlai Stevenson. It talks about how he was very congenial about this wild west stunt. It also noted that the secret service on duty were not too pleased. The photograph and the information conjured up thoughts about how it might play out today. Can you imagine? In fact, we ended up in a discussion there in the hallway with another couple looking at the photo at the same time. There's something about having a visual image along with a story that stimulates the mind, right?

Everybody would find something of interest in this museum. There are works spanning more than three centuries and every medium, sculpture, oil, photography --- contemporary, folk art, murals, impressionism, etc, etc. I mentioned that we thought we would have more than enough time to see the museum. Well it wasn't. We had to leave a portion for another visit.

However, we took the opportunity to take in a program called “Face to Face.” The head curator of the National Portrait Gallery, Sidney Hart, gave a 30-minute presentation in the gallery about Thomas Jefferson and the artist who painted two of his portraits, Charles Willson Peale.
He took us to each piece, giving us background on why this artist and why at this specific time in history....and why he as the head curator thought of the work. Of course being the historian that this man is, there was a lot more to the story he gave us. Hanging next to Jefferson's portrait in the gallery of vice presidents, is John Adams. Mr Hart told the tale of the relationship of these two men, and others to them, such as George Washington. He was easily coaxed into details of his knowledge of Adams and Jefferson, their up and down friendship, and much more.

All in all, our minds, our feet and our legs had a workout, but it was worth a few aches. Of course, there are benches to rest occasionally and a pleasant courtyard for refreshments. And, oh by the way, have you ever experienced a waste container that speaks to you? Well these do. They say “thank you” when you deposit your trash? We even heard one clever user respond, “your welcome,” with a wry smile.

Both of us give a thumbs up to anyone who is curious about visiting your National Portrait Gallery. I haven't touched on the magnitude or variety of artwork that you can see and stories behind them.

By the time they closed the doors on us at 7:00 pm we were ready to relax for a few minutes before heading home. So we stopped at the little bar we found above our parking garage. This turned out to be a nice close for the day as we were surrounded by people flowing in to what was an after-work spot, sharing their lives and whatever it is that all of them do in D. C. It was a jolt back to today after stepping outside for a few hours. Another a slice of life!

Getting out of the city at 8:00 pm was smoother than entering in the morning. All was well.

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