The artists featured below represent a minute sample of those whose works are collected and exhibited at the Smithsonians many museums. In Washington, D.C. Smithsonian museums include: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, featuring Asian art from ancient times to the present; the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum which has changing exhibitions of design, decorative arts, industrial design, and architecture; Freer Gallery of Art, focusing on Asian art and 19th- and early 20th-century American art; the National Museum of African Art, which specializes in the collection, study, and exhibition of African Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, containing modern and contemporary art; the National Museum of American Art, with its enormous collections of painting, sculpture, graphics, folk art, and photography; 18th century to the present, special exhibitions of American art; the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, which has permanent collection and exhibitions of American crafts; and the National Portrait Gallery, containing portraits of distinguished Americans. Below we feature some of the more famous artists in the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)

Oil on canvas, 1780-1784, NPG.77.22
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and matching funds from the Smithsonian Institution.

John Singleton Copley is generally recognized as colonial America's preeminent artist. By age nineteen, he was a well-established portrait painter in Boston, dabbling in engraving, pastels, and miniatures. Despite his success with portraits, however, Copley wanted to paint historical scenes, a subject that was in vogue at the time.

In 1766 he sent his painting Boy with a Squirrel (1765) to England for exhibition at the Society of Artists, where it received marked praise from the renowned American expatriate artist Benjamin West, who encouraged Copley to study in Europe. However, Copley was reluctant to leave his prosperous career in the colonies. Finally, in 1774, with war looming, he moved with his family to London, where he took up history painting. His American portraits are characterized by fine, detailed representations of faces and fabrics, while his English style moved toward the bold strokes and dramatic compositions common to Romanticism.

One key to Copley's success in England was his depiction of contemporary narratives that were of interest to his audience. Brook Watson, a London merchant, commissioned Copley to paint a scene from his youth: while swimming in Havana harbor, Watson had been attacked by a shark and lost part of his leg. He subsequently recovered and went on to become a prominent public figure. For Watson, the attack and recovery symbolized his triumph over adversity, and he hoped that the painting would provide "a most usefull Lesson to Youth." The result was a work entitled Watson and the Shark (1778).

Benjamin West (1738-1820)

Attributed to James Smith (1749-c.1794)
Oil on canvas, 1770, NPG.80.136
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Gift of the Margaret Hall Foundation

By the age of eighteen, Benjamin West was a professional portrait painter in Philadelphia. However, like John Singleton Copley, he aspired to paint what his contemporaries thought were the "proper" subjects for art: scenes from history and literature. West left for Europe in 1760, where he studied painting in Italy. Soon after settling in London three years later, he received lucrative commissions from leaders of the Anglican Church, and later from George III, with whom he developed a personal friendship. Greatly admired by his European colleagues, West was a founding member of England's Royal Academy of Arts in 1769 and later became its president. He used his position to encourage many younger American artists, including Samuel F. B. Morse and Robert Fulton, who later became better known as inventors.

West was a master of the neoclassical style, which took its inspiration from the heroes and institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. Artists intended these large, elaborate paintings to serve as both historical narratives and moral commentaries on contemporary society. Although West's early paintings contained classical elements, he increasingly chose to represent more current events. One such painting, The Battle of La Hogue (circa 1778), depicts a seventeenth-century British naval victory over the French. This work, remarkable for its movement and drama, was intended to evoke nationalist sentiment. West was also successful with religious subjects. The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (1791) was painted for the Royal Chapel at Windsor. Perhaps his most famous painting, however, is Death of General Wolfe (circa 1771).

George Catlin (1796-1872)

William Fisk (1796-1872)
Oil on canvas, 1849, NPG.70.14
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Transfer from the National Museum of American Art; gift of Miss May C. Kinney, Ernest C. Kinney, and Bradford Wickes, 1945

When George Catlin's mother was seven, she and her family were briefly captured by Indians in a Revolutionary War battle. Her experience combined with his own later frontier encounters caused young Catlin to grow up steeped in American Indian lore. Initially Catlin practiced law, but in 1823 he abandoned it for a career in painting. His art took a new direction after he saw a delegation of American Indian chieftains in Philadelphia in the late 1820s. He resolved "to use my art and so much of the labors of my future life as might be required in rescuing from oblivion the looks and customs . . . of native man in America."

After 1830, Catlin embarked on several western tours, traveling with traders, soldiers, and explorers. Along the way, he took notes and made hundreds of paintings and sketches, both landscapes and portraits, in an effort to faithfully document the American Indian tribes he encountered. Later, he spent several years exhibiting his paintings, attracting huge crowds, both in the United States and Europe, who were eager to satisfy their curiosity about the "savages" of the New World. Catlin, and others like him, were mistaken in believing that American Indian culture would disappear altogether. Nevertheless, events made it necessary for most American Indians to dramatically alter their way of life. Catlin's work gives us some idea of what American Indian life might have been like prior to contact with Europeans.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938)
Etching and drypoint on tinted paper, circa 1900, NPG.80.178
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Whistler was one of nineteenth-century America's most innovative artists. After dropping out of West Point Military Academy and working as a cartographer, Whistler went to Paris in 1855 to study art. It didn't take him long to earn his lifelong reputation as a colorful and eccentric personality and to meet Paris's leading intellectuals. Although he moved to London in 1859, he continued to maintain close ties with his Parisian associates. Whistler was profoundly influenced by modern theories of "art for art's sake"; traditionally, western art had been valued primarily for its narrative or moral content. Whistler constantly experimented with abstract color and composition, taking inspiration from Asian woodcuts and ceramics. Indeed, his theoretical sensibilities were so strong that they often inhibited him from actually finishing his work. When a friend compared his paintings to pieces of music, Whistler was delighted, and thereafter used musical terms to describe his art. Such abstract ideas infuriated the critics; one accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

Like Mary Cassatt, Whistler was influenced by Japanese art. The painting Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) illustrates Whistler's lifelong fascination with Asian themes. Whistler also created a series of small compositional studies that he called "Notes." He felt that an artist selects elements of nature, "as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony." Whistler's moonlight paintings are among his greatest artistic contributions. These subtle and subjective landscapes mark Whistler's departure from realism. Christened "Nocturnes," they were the first of his paintings to be dubbed with a musical title. Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871), better known as Whistler's Mother, is perhaps his most famous work. Many of his works are on display in the Freer Gallery of Art.

One of Whistler's patrons, Frederick Leyland (with whose wife Whistler had a long and close friendship), asked the artist for his opinion on a dining room that needed remodeling. The room was to house Leyland's Chinese porcelain collection and feature one of Whistler's paintings, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. What began with advice on colors escalated into a complete makeover, accomplished in Leyland's absence and without his knowledge. The walls and ceiling were painted with iridescent blues and greens, and covered with gold leaf, reminiscent of peacock feathers. Leyland was not happy with the artist or his fee, but he did keep the room intact. Whistler's Peacock Room (1876-1872) (also known as Harmony in Blue and Gold) was moved three times before it ended up at the Freer Gallery, where it has been restored to its original condition.

Whistler first made headlines in 1863 with the painting The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1) (1862), one of the highlights of the first Salon des Refusés in Paris. The Salon des Refusés was created as a response to the conservative French government's official solicitation of paintings for an exhibit called the Salon. That year the judges offended so many of Europe's artists that Emperor Napoleon III suggested hosting a simultaneous exhibition of the refused artworks and calling it the Salon des Refusés. Whistler was one of those artists relegated to this group. His entry, a large-scale portrait that seemed to snub artistic convention, generated both praise and mockery. The subject of the painting was his first model and mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as the Irish Beauty. It was not the first time, nor the last, that Whistler's private life would shock the sensibilities of the Victorian public.

In 1866 a combination of factors--among them guilt from dropping out of West Point, an artistic ebb, and the difficulty of keeping his mother and his mistress in the same house--sent Whistler to Chile to assist in the war against Spain. The only action he saw was a hasty retreat on horseback from a Spanish bombardment, of which he later reported, "The riding was splendid and I, as a West Point man, was head of the procession." Fortunately Whistler was a better artist than soldier, for the trip generated several wonderful paintings, including Valparaiso Harbor (1866), which may be found at the National Museum of American Art. Its shadowy early-morning depiction of the Chilean harbor is similar to one of his Nocturnes, Blue and Gold-Valparaiso, which hangs in the Freer Gallery.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Watercolor on paper, circa 1880, NPG.76.33
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Mary Cassatt was one of this country's premier painters and printmakers in the impressionist style, and was well known for her independence as an artist and as a woman. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, as a child she was well-traveled and exposed to European art. Cassatt determined early on that she wanted to be an artist and embarked on her career at age twenty, when she moved to Europe. As Cassatt's style matured, she found herself attracted to the controversial new movement called impressionism. When mainstream art critics rejected her work, Edgar Degas invited her to join his group of impressionist artists. Although Cassatt adopted impressionism's glowing colors and atmosphere, she preferred stronger patterning and firmer outlines, inspired by Japanese prints (as was Degas, with whom she developed a close friendship). Unlike many of her impressionist colleagues, Cassatt had little interest in landscape painting, instead taking the everyday lives of women as her subjects. Cassatt thought of herself as an American artist, though she visited the United States infrequently. Her exhibitions gave Americans their first taste of impressionist painting.

The Caress (1902), which pictures a mother and two daughters, has an unusual composition: traditionally, family groups were painted in a pyramid shape, but in this painting, the three subjects are grouped together at the same level. The relaxed mood of the painting illustrates Cassatt's talent for portraying subjects in naturalistic poses and settings. The Caress is a good example of one of Cassatt's domestic scenes. She also depicted women in more formal settings, as in Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla (1873). Both of these paintings are in the collections of the National Museum of American Art.

The Boating Party (1893-1894), with its flat luster, bold pattern, and simple, rich color areas, shows the influence of Japanese printmaking on Cassatt's style. The painting is also noted for its dramatic perspective and because it is one of her rare outdoor settings. Another painting, Girl Arranging Her Hair (1886), has an interesting story behind it. Allegedly Degas pronounced that women have no sense of style, and Cassatt set out to prove him wrong by creating this painting. Judging from its critical acclaim, she was successful; even Degas had to exclaim, "What style!" These paintings, and forty-seven others by Cassatt, can be seen in the National Gallery of Art.

Andy Warhol (circa 1930-1987)

James Browning Wyeth (born 1946)
Gouache and pencil on paper, 1975, T/NPG.77.32.97
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Gift of the Coe-Kerr Gallery

Andy Warhol's name has become synonymous with the pop art movement of the 1960s, in which artists used everyday images as their subjects. Many of his paintings are characterized by repetition, which he achieved by the use of the silk-screening print technique. In fact, he called his studio "The Factory," partly as a comment on pop culture and partly because of the repetitive nature of his own art. Warhol was always reluctant to comment on his work. He insisted that he wished to remain invisible as an artist, leaving interpretation up to the viewer. His personal style was very flamboyant, however, becoming almost a personification of what some critics considered the banality and tawdriness of Pop art itself. Many a visitor to Warhol's studio was subjected to pop music playing loudly and repeatedly, Warhol wearing wigs or masks, and other notorious idiosyncrasies. Like the brand-name products and celebrities he painted, Warhol has become one of the most recognizable personalities of twentieth-century art. By the late 1960s he had also become a producer of bizarre films. In 1968 Warhol survived an assassination attempt by one of his own groupies.

Warhol may be most famous for his many depictions of Campbell's soup cans. Critics have called these images everything from empty, artless, commercial drawings to Marxist critiques on modern culture. About soup, Warhol once said, "I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess; the same thing over and over again." After Warhol learned to silk-screen photographs, his artistic media expanded. He used this process to create some of his more well-known works, including his many portraits of Marilyn Monroe. If you find yourself asking what it all means, take some advice from one critic, who said, "It is seldom a good idea to plumb deeply for meaning in Warhol's art." Or, as Warhol himself said, "Buying is much more American than thinking."


Museums around the world
Art Museum Network
Arts Edge: Linking the Arts and Education, from the Kennedy Center

John Singleton Copley
Collection of Copley images, from the CGFA index

Benjamin West
Collection of West images, from the CGFA index
The Benjamin West House

George Catlin
Catlin biography, from the Museum of Nebraska Art
"The Illustrating Traveler: Adventure and Illustration in North America and the Caribbean" includes many of Catlin's works
Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art: Catlin and the Traditions of Western Art

James McNeill Whistler
Review of Whistler's work, by Mark Harden

Mary Cassatt
Cassatt biography and images, from Webmuseum
Cassatt biography, from the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Collection of Cassatt images, from the CGFA index
Japanese influences on Mary Cassatt

Andy Warhol
The Andy Warhol Museum
The Andy Warhol Foundation
Warhol biography, from Artelino