« A stay-cation interlude from the divine Leontyne Price | Main | Celebrated pianist Van Cliburn diagnosed with advanced bone cancer »

August 27, 2012

Final stay-cation report: National Portrait Gallery, D.C.'s best-kept secret

I know how anxious you all are to hear about more of my stay-cation adventures. Well, get over it. I didn't have any.

But on one my last days off, I did make a neat visit to my  hometown to spend a most enjoyable time in one of my favorite public places there, the National Portrait Gallery.

It shares space in a grand old building with the Smithsonian America Art Museum. The combo is one of Washington's best-kept secrets.

If you have never been, make plans at once. And I do mean at once.

Two terrific exhibits will be closing soon:  "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond" (last day is Sept. 3); and "In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio" (last day is Sept. 9).

The extensive African American exhibit, including works by the likes of Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas and Melvin Edwards, has an electric vibrancy that carries from gallery to gallery.

The modest-sized photo display, confined to a corridor, is quite arresting. The faces are familiar -- Lucille Ball (gorgeous and pensive), Irene Dunne, Eisenhower, Patton, et al. But ...

these striking images from the 1930s and '40s achieve an almost surreal beauty from having been taken in color, a rare thing at the time (the process was created by Warnecke and his New York Daily News colleagues).

Other cool things await in just about every nook of this double museum, including a room devoted to portraits and documents of Ameila Earhart (the letter she wrote to her future husband detailing a rather advanced concept of marriage is especially fascinating).

And the bicentennial that we in Baltimore are particularly attuned to gets a sweeping, informative treatment here in "1812: A Nation Emerges."

In my youth, I found the National Portrait Gallery irresistible because of all the presidential portraits (including ones the subjects didn't like). This part of the collection is still a great draw, but it is just the starting point for quite an adventure. The place seems richer each time I visit. 

Neither the Portrait Gallery nor the American Art Museum gets the crowds of the National Mall. That's too bad in one way -- and great in another; there's plenty of elbow room.

Floor by floor, this treasure sheds a distinctive light on America's history and culture. Extensively and brilliantly renovated in recent years, the space also provides a consistently inviting ambiance (the atrium in the center adds the finishing touch). And it's all free. What more could you want?

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens


The museum also hosts free concerts, including a monthly Steinway Series. Peabody faculty artist Phil Kolker, bassoon, will perform American works for woodwinds and piano with students and alumni on Sunday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, at 3 pm.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected