These last few years the Hayfoot and I have been visiting Washington fairly frequently. Our favorite place is the National Portrait Gallery. For better or worse, I have always taken a cross-disciplinary approach to art and literature, collating in my head the circumstances under which the book was written or the scuplture created. There is no better place for this than the NPG, with its collections of historical paintings and sculpture that put the art into a historical context. The last time we visited in July I was reading The Siege of Washington, which chronicled those tense days just after Fort Sumter when it appeared the Confederacy just might take the Federal capitol and end the war before it began. In Siege, the Lockwood brothers describe how Clara Barton clerked in the Patent Office, which was located in the Greek revival building that is now the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately, sexual harassment was not uncommon. Walt Whitman worked in the Patent Officen during the war, when the facility was used as a hospital. The building’s history as a museum dates only to the 1960s, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things.
The museum is currently exhibiting a retrospective on the building called Temple of Invention. Here is the online version.