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Book Reviews
Americans: Paintings and Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery Washington D.C. Foreword by John Updike. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2002

ISBN 1 85514 500 6 Price £12.95

Reviewed by Barbara Marshall, City of Liverpool College


You can find details of the exhibition here


Posted 21 October 2003

Hurrah for an art book that you can actually hold in your hand without breaking your wrist. I’d delayed reviewing Americans because I was engrossed in a much illustrated autobiography. Seeing what the author (Elizabeth Jane Howard) looked like at different ages was almost as interesting as her text, and following this with more than 150 portraits seemed very fitting. What people look like, whether their physiognomy seems commensurate with their achievements and how they are portrayed cannot fail to interest and it must be a dull person indeed who can’t find anything to enjoy in the National Portrait Gallery, either here or in Washington D.C. – or in this book.

Americans was published to accompany the exhibition of 150 loans from the American Portrait Gallery. I thought writing about it wouldn’t take long – a summary of the short essays, an overview of the contents and a few selective dippings in. I was wrong. Once I began to read – and look – I was hooked.

The book is divided into two sections; paintings ranging from the 1727 Anglican clergyman George Berkely who came to America ‘despairing of corruption in Europe and anticipating a bright future for the new world’ (Enron, anyone?) to Warhol’s 1984 Michael Jackson silkscreen, and what a fesh faced sweetie he was then. The second section is devoted to photographs, from the 1846 daguerrotype of abolitionist John Brown to the 1980 print of Bill Cosby whose words wouldn’t be a bad motto for any world, new or old ‘ I don’t think you can bring the races together by joking about the differences between them. I’d rather talk about similarities, about what’s universal in their experiences.’

The scope of Americans is considerable and compelling – people who have contributed in many different ways to the history of America. They include statesmen, military leaders, industrialists, inventors, socialites, but also union leaders, civil rights workers, artists, architects, musicians, writers and actors. There are, of course, more men than women, 90 compared to 24, and more white than black, 101 to 11, but what is especially inspiring at a time when America’s might and military power stalk the earth is the recurring egalitarianism and humanity of many of these Americans.

This is a thoroughly entertaining and educative book, useful both for reference ( the accompanying notes to each portrait are excellent) and inspiration. Without the photographers and painters there would be no portraits and Nathaniel Hawthorne, being painted by Emanuel Gottlieb, saw this artistry as hope for the future of the country 

‘the artist keeps right on, firm of heart and hand, drawing his outline with an unwavering pencil, beautifying and idealising our rude, material life, and thus manifesting that we have an indefeasible claim to a more enduring existence.’ 

Let’s hope we do.

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