America seen through the faces of its most famous citizens – as enshrined in its own National Portrait Gallery. One might think this is a formula for only showing the status quo. And yet in this journey through “America’s” history, the different strands are so at variance that they challenge us to think again about the image and reality of “America” itself.
It strikes a blow at crude anti-Americanism - those who want to tar every American citizen with the noxious qualities of the leaders currently in power in Washington, often in order to smuggle in their own form of chauvinism.
The story begins in the days when “America” was still a British colony. It’s surprising, for example, to find Bishop Berkeley, painted around 1727, as one of the first images. Berkeley is described by the curators as an “Anglican clergyman”, and yet he is probably better known to those interested in ideas as the philosopher who told us that things only exist in so far as they are perceived.
After being appointed Dean of Derry, Berkeley despaired of Europe’s corruption and set off to create a utopian college in Bermuda. He only got as far as Rhode Island and ran out of money for his project.
His desire to get away from home – in his case going West – was strangely enough repeated 150 years later, albeit in the opposite direction. By the late 19th century quite a few Americans sought - not exactly salvation - but a kind of cultural freedom, by going to Europe.
Alongside the Founding Fathers like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, scientists, and generals, we find American thinkers, writers and artists who were as often as not at variance with their own society or who sought to right its abuses.
So there is an impressive portrait of Sequoyah, a native American who negotiated on behalf of the Cherokee Indians and created an alphabet which enabled his people to read and write. Another champion of the “lords of the forest” was George Catlin, who abandoned a successful career as a society painter and set out to record Indian leaders.
Campaigners against slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator and author Harriet Beecher Stowe rub shoulders with Civil War generals like William Sherman and Philip H Sheridan.
Portraits of or by the best-known American artists are included: James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt along with writers like Edith Wharton, Henry James and Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
It is here that the interaction between Europe and America becomes ever more intriguing. One of “America’s” best-known society painters, Sargent was actually born in Florence and lived in Europe more than in America, with a studio in London as well as New York while Cassatt became a respected artist during the 1870s and 1880s, a member of the Impressionist movement in Paris.
Thomas Hart Benton, one of the great US school of 1930s muralists, was born in the Midwest, but was in Paris in his formative years, absorbing avant garde theories.
One of the best aspects of this show is that the person portrayed and the portraitist are given equal prominence both on the walls and in the excellent accompanying book (Americans, NPG £12.95). The interaction between the painter and the painted adds another dimension to the exhibition.
That’s how it is with Arthur Kaufmann’s picture of jazz composer George Gershwin. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gershwin brought together the sound of 1920s and 1930s America and made jazz into a serious art form, as the catalogue notes. The artist who depicted him was forced to emigrate from Germany after the Nazis took power. That’s when he made friends with Gershwin. His dynamic and yet contemplative study – in modulated tans, greys and pale green, was made only a year before the composer’s untimely death at the age of 39.
The real treat in this show comes in the photographic section. For those interested in the technique of photography, a group of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are of exceptional interest. Under four inches square, the images on them are invisible from one angle. We seem to be looking at a metallic mirror. Then, almost as if in a hologram, the amazingly life-like images appear, like ghosts of the past.
Thus we see the truly haunting image of John Brown, after whom the famous abolitionist song was named. Brown organised the murder of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and the capture of Harpers Ferry in Virginia. He was caught by Colonel Robert E Lee, tried and found guilty of insurrection, treason and murder and hanged. The daguerreotype was made by Augustus Washington, the son of a former slave.
An ambrotype from 1859, taken of the West Point graduate George Armstrong Custer, best known for his “Last Stand” against the Lakota (Sioux) Indians, looks as if it was taken yesterday.
The original outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were captured in a gelatin silver print photograph in 1900, before they set off for Argentina. The outlaw gang pose in bowler hats , sporting elegant three piece suits with watch fobs, resting their hands on the carved chairs.
Another unmissable print from the same year shows author and passionate socialist Jack London who wrote The Call of the Wild and many other famous books. More photographs of 20th century actors, scientists and political leaders, not least the classic pose of Marilyn Monroe over a hot air grating, take us up to the late 1970s.
Armstrong, Lisette Model, c.1956, © Lisette Model Foundation Inc (1983)
Louis Armstrong, Lisette Model, c.1956, © Lisette Model Foundation Inc (1983)
Americans is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Lane, until January 12. Admission £6/£4. Open daily 10am-6pm. Late opening Thursday until 9pm. Recorded information: 020 7312 2463; general information 020 7306 055. www.npg.org.uk
Sequoyah, Henry Inman, after Charles Bird King, c.1830, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Gershwin, Arthur Kaufmann, 1936 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution