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The National Gallery of Art has failed African American Artists 10/5/2019

The National Gallery of Art’s West Wing is an accurate representation of what has been the conventional practice of exhibiting art by African American artists and of African American subjects by major cultural institutions; sparse, negligent, reductive, and misrepresentative. Not only is the collection deplorably limited in its number of African American artists, but those works displayed by said artists lack conceptual significance and fail to accurately represent their practice.


Late 19th Century limner Joshua Johnson was often commissioned for family portraits of affluent white patrons in the Baltimore area. His style was consistent with French Neoclassical paintings which, though self-trained, allow Johnson’s portraits to conform to the established canon. Though evidently familiar with Neoclassical compositions and palettes it was actually the less sophisticated modeling of the face and human anatomy of folk art that resonated with common Americans and speaks to a national pride in the common man.

The National Gallery of Art chooses to exhibit Joshua Johnson’s, The Westwood Children, oil on canvas, 1807 in the American galleries, specifically grouped somewhat insignificantly portraits of children. This portrait is a fair representation of Johnson’s practice as a high number of his paintings were similar family portraits depicting the children of wealthy patrons. Though not sophisticated in their anatomy or approach to the human form and proportion, these portraits are endearing, maintaining the rosy innocence of childhood. Attention to the lace of the children’s garments and botanical elements in the flowers, berries, and the small bird display an interest in texture as well as those things that are fragile and precious. Playful innocence is not only implied by the three children but is emphasized in its mischief with the puppy who presents a small bird in its mouth. Another compositional element common of Johnson’s work is the implied landscape of the window peeking into the background, which enhances the muted palette of the painting, only disrupted by the vibrant pinks of small roses.


There is a failure in the didactic materials to acknowledge Joshua Johnson, not only as one of very few African American artists in the collection, but the first professional African American painter. When considering the intention and thoughtfulness with which a work is exhibited a good point of reference is often the provenance of the work and any stipulations or parameters established by the work’s donor. As part of a collection of folk art gifted by Edgar Williams and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch I have to wonder if, even in its acquisition, the cultural importance and historical significance of the work in its foundational contribution to African American art practice was lost upon its patrons. As private collectors Williams and Garbisch were concerned primarily with the work for its aesthetic value and contribution to an already established collection rather than its perceived art historical significance.


Once entering the objectives of an encyclopedic institution however, the role and priority of the work and its exhibition must shift to one as valuable to the education of the general public and museum patrons. The curatorial responsibility of art administrators is to elevate an art work’s conceptual and interpretive content, and to communicate on behalf of the artist and in respect of their individual creative integrity and its place among the greater expanse of art history. This is something I have seen cultural institutions on various occasions fail to do as it applies to the African American artists; whose artistic significance is not limited to their racial identity, but are misrepresented and reduced into obscurity when that identity goes unacknowledged as unprecedented in American Art History.


Relegated the furthermost corner of the American galleries is a painting by the accomplished and revered landscape artist of the 19th century, Robert S. Duncanson. Although extremely successful and well known in his time for his panoramic, almost surreal expanses, the National Gallery of Art represents Duncanson not by his signature grande landscapes, but in a minute still life entitled Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, oil on board, 1848, wedged between two compositionally similar paintings. Once identified as “the best landscape artist in the West”, Duncanson is reduced to this small still life forced in a least significant and accessible corner of American galleries, hardley accommodating more than three people at a time. The didactic material here once again offers no more information about the artist than a name and nationality.


Here the injustice is even greater as not only does it neglect to acknowledge the relevance of the artist’s racial identity to the work’s place in the museum’s collection and the history of American art and African American art production, but fails to accurately give insight into the artist’s stylistic identity. Further disappointment resides in the fact that not only is this still life the only work on view by Robert S. Duncanson but the only work by Duncanson acquired to the collection of the National Gallery of Art. As one of the most respected American artists of his time, this lack of representation among the museum’s collection seems highly negligent.


Archibald Motley’s, Portrait of my Grandmother, oil on canvas, 1922 is striking upon gaze, so much so that this portrait of Emily Motley almost feels misplaced in its severance from a relatively banal atmosphere composed by the masses of white subjects and paintings relatively indistinguishable in composition. To turn the corner towards the exit of the American galleries and be met by a lonely black figure unaccompanied on its wall and familiar in expression and wear of time, is both comforting and critical. The hard juxtaposition of Emily Motley among the masses of white sitters only further emphasizes the disparity of black faces in the room and black names on the wall. Her expression is tired and forces you into contemplation of your incompetencies or those of her circumstances in respect to her life, labor, and hardships. From her long tired fingers as they rest in her lap, to the harsh stare of her sunken eyes and pressed lips, she has earned more, is owed more, and expects more for you. These criticisms can be applied to the room and institution in which she rests and its continued failure to her grandson and other quintessential black artists, in substantially representing and respecting the work of African Americans.

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