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Every Three Years, Artists Compete to Be On View at the National Portrait Gallery. Here Are the Winners

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s not easy to look away from the captivating subjects in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition that just opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 

Unlike the historical and modern-day leaders, renowned activists and famous personalities depicted in the rest of the museum, these are by and large the faces of the unknown; Americans, most of them, looking back at the viewer in a direct gaze.

Not only does that make a confrontational and often emotional connection in these 43 paintings, photographs, sculptures and drawings; it also seems to demand something from the viewer, as if to ask, what will you do now?

“Each displays an intimate connection between the artists and their sitters,” says Dorothy Moss, the associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, who is director of the Outwin Competition. 

Held every three years, the competition was begun by a gift from a former volunteer and benefactor Virginia Outwin Boochever, who died in 2005. It’s grown in popularity each time, with some 2,500 entries submitted this year in a variety of media.

And there’s something especially intense and topical in the 2016 show, whose artists hail from 19 states. “I think people are looking at portraiture as a way to have conversations about bigger issues that they are experiencing in their lives, that are in the news, and that also people are talking about,” Moss says.

The winning entry does it as well as any, with a clear-eyed African-American young woman with a large red flower on her hat, whose white gloves hold a comically oversized coffee cup, seemingly rising above social constructs with pure confidence. Baltimore artist Amy Sherald titles her Miss Everything but adds a parenthetical subtitle, Unsuppressed Deliverance.

Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) by Amy Sherald, 2013 (Frances and Burton Reifler)

“It’s about who she is in the present moment,” says Sherald, who as first place winner receives $25,000 and a commission to create a portrait of a living individual for the museum’s permanent collection. 

Miss Everything is emblematic of the show as well in its depiction of diversity. Unlike, say, the nearby exhibition of presidential portraits, here is a show that celebrates people of color, or various ages, and different backgrounds, and not always distinct gender. 

The down and out subject of Joel Daniel Phillips drawing Eugene #4, a third place winner in the competition, regains dignity by having his Mission District surroundings removed and replaced by pure white. Jenny Miller, the subject of Claudia Biçen’s drawing, from a series depicting elderly people facing death, speaks to the viewer not only with a piercing gaze but through her words written intricately on her blouse as if a woven pattern. The deft tonal colors in Dean Mitchell’s watercolor of Artist Bob Ragland makes it look as if he is a ghost, or has just seen one.

And if there is a common profession among those depicted as artist. The most famous of them, David Hockney, in Brenda Zlamany’s oil painting, smiles from his leafy, colorful home. Riva Lehrer’s drawing and mixed media of the graphic artist and Fun Home author Alison Bechdel comes with a Bechdel-like depiction of her mother. Gilda Snowden in Her Detroit Studio by Donita Simpson shows the artist and organizer in her realm as if on a throne. John Ahearn provides, as is his wont, two portraits of his subject, the 19-year-old South Bronx artist Devon Rodriguez, depicted in heroic plaster busts as The Rodriguez Twins

There are more portraits of children this time around, Moss says. But they are not particularly joyful and playful depictions. Instead, there is a haunting worry from their eyes. Shannan in a photograph by Maureen Drennan looks back from her tiny two wheeler at a street level, bringing to mind the colors and bike shots of William Eggleston. James, Post-Wirral Fight in Jona Frank’s photograph, looks defiant, angry and a little bruised, as a child enlisted in a boxing match might. Mavis in the Backseat is a haunting enough picture from Cynthia Henebry to have earned it second place in the competition; sitting within the womb of a station wagon, it denotes a complexity and depth one might not expect from a five-year-old. 

Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Clemente-Colon by Adrian "Viajero" Roman (Collection of the artist)

It’s not so different than the ambiguous look of Jarod Lew’s Audrey, a similar image in an enclosed car as if it is her again, older and full of disappointment, her face seeming to ask “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”

There are glints of humor and cleverness in the show as well, as when Wendy Arbeit presents 17 self portraits representing every decade of photography—each perfectly realized studies of formal portraits—and how they were framed—through the years, right up to a sassy selfie—the one example of today’s ubiquitous portrait style in the show.

Naoko Wowsugi plays up the cheesy frames too in her series of department-store-like portraits that capture the people who taught her an odd English word, shooting them in the act of saying it (resulting in some odd facial expressions). 

Rare are the portraits exuding happiness, but Lucy, 15 Years Old seems happy finding herself in a dress in the photograph by Carolyn Sherer

While videos were prominent in the last competition, none made the final cut this year. Instead, the most elaborate multimedia piece is the prominent portrait of the elderly aunt of artist Adrian "Viajero" Roman, in the hanging piece Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Clemente de Colon. It shows the four sides of the woman’s care-worn face on a box, while inside, photographs, utensils and other items reflecting her native Puerto Rico are hung, and her voice can be heard in a recording as well.

Becky, June, Jessica and Mary by Jessica Todd Harper, 2013 (Collection of the artist, courtesy of Rick Wester Fine Art, New York City)

But there are shots of immediacy that seem captured from headlines. The desperate woman in Louie Palu’s photograph Deported clutches a blanket before she’s sent home. A moving portrait of a family traversing the Rio Grande by Rigoberto A. Gonzales, La Guia (The Guide), has the same kind of painterly drama found in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa or Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios.

Masters of portraiture, particularly John Singer Sargent, are often mentioned as inspirations by the selected artists, including Rick Ashley in his photograph of his brother-in-law, who has Down syndrome and a Superman costume in Michael #147973

But the influences are sometimes subtle. 

There’s a pride and purpose to a lot of the sitters, from the mostly covered mother in the photograph April and her daughter Sarah by Claire Beckett to the two church-going women of seemingly different faiths, Margaret and Marquetta Tisdell, Original Providence Baptist Church by Paul D’Amato; the splendid plaid coat of Johnny Jones in Marti Corn’s photograph or the explosion of patriotically-hued carnations in Tim Doud’s American Prize

Ray DiCapua, a return artist from the 2013 competition, delivers another large format charcoal drawing, Phyllis, in which he depicts his mother seemingly grappling with age. The only other work as large is Sedrick Huckaby’s close up self-portrait Sedrick, Sed, Daddy which combines a Chuck Close nearness to the bold strokes of Rouault. It wins a cash prize as "Commended" as will Daniel James McInnis’ inkjet print Heidi and Lily, Ohio 2014; Jess Dugan’s self-portrait photograph; and Jessica Todd Harper’s photograph Becky, June, Jessica and Mary. 

Michael #145973 by Rick Ashley, 2014 (Collection of the artist)

“To end up with a show of this depth and quality focused on the portrait really speaks to the continued viability of that genre as an art practice,” says Dawoud Bey, a professor of art at Columbia College Chicago, one of the judges assembled for the competition. Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, New York magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz and John Valadez, a Los Angeles painter and muralist also joined Moss and National Portrait Gallery chief curator Brandon Brame Fortune to form the jury. 

But the viewers can also be their own judge.

Voting is open through September 20 for a People’s Choice Award winner.

Proof of the popularity of the portrait competition comes in the fact that when the show ends its run in Washington on January 8, 2017, it will travel to three other museums across the country for another year. 

“The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. through January 8, 2017. The exhibition will travel to the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington, from February 4, 2017 to May 14, 2017; the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, Texas, from June 8 to September 10, 2017; and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from October 6, 2017 to January 7, 2018.

Everett Shinn Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
By 1901, when he drew this self-portrait, Everett Shinn was an acclaimed illustrator and pastel artist whose bright impressionist palette was very popular. In this drawing, he displays his theatrical personality in muted tones, vivid colors, and a downturned face. Recognizing that a degree of dramatic posturing was expected of an artist, he assumed the role of a brooding romantic and paid tribute to the cele- brated actress Julia Marlowe in an inscription. In 1908, the artist—who is best remembered as one of the Ashcan painters of urban scenes—sent a sketch of himself posing for publicity photos to fellow Ashcan artist John Sloan. “Great fun. being an artist. with temperament,” Shinn quipped.

Para 1901, cuando realizó este autorretrato, Everett Shinn era un aclamado ilustrador y dibujante al pastel cuya brillante paleta impresionista era muy popular. En este dibujo despliega su personalidad teatral en tonos apagados, colores vívidos y postura cabizbaja. Sabiendo que de un artista se espera cierto grado de dramatismo, aquí asume el papel de un romántico taciturno y rinde homenaje en una inscripción a la célebre actriz Julia Marlowe. En 1908, este artista —recordado como miembro de la Escuela Ashcan, grupo dedicado a pintar escenas urbanas— envió un boceto de sí mismo posando para fotos publicitarias a otro artista de la Ashcan, John Sloan. “Muy divertido, ser un artista con temperamento”, escribió Shinn en broma.

Everett Shinn Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery

Elliot Tupac: Capturing a Moment in a Mural

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Perú: Pachamama program featured several chicha street artists, including Elliot Tupac, a Peruvian muralist and designer who hails from Lima. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his art, his experience at the Festival, and why he feels urban art is important.

In this video, Elliot walks us through his process of creating mural concepts. He views his art as a “intervention” onto the space, drawing ideas and inspiration from the surrounding people and environment. At the Festival, not only did the idea for the “Libertad” mural come from the people around him, but the artwork did too; he enjoyed the artistic contributions of various visitors who happened upon the space.

Although Elliot doesn’t necessarily consider himself to be an artist, as he says in the video, I hope you are as wowed by his skill, his eloquence, and the significance of urban art in Peru as I was.

Filmography: Albert Tong, Charlie Weber, Pruitt Allen, Jiaban Li, Claudia Romano
Production: Claudia Romano, Marisol Medina-Cadena
Editing: Claudia Romano

Claudia Romano is a video production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Swarthmore College, where she studies anthropology.

Elliot Tupac: Capturing a Moment in a Mural

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The "Perú: Pachamama" program at the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured several chicha street artists, including Elliot Tupac, a Peruvian muralist and designer who hails from Lima. He views his art as a “intervention” onto the space, drawing ideas and inspiration from the surrounding people and environment. At the Festival, not only did the idea for the “Libertad” mural come from the people around him, but the artwork did too; he enjoyed the artistic contributions of various visitors who happened upon the space. Filmography: Albert Tong, Charlie Weber, Pruitt Allen, Jiaban Li, Claudia Romano Production: Claudia Romano, Marisol Medina-Cadena Editing: Claudia Romano [Catalog No. CFV10767; Copyright 2015 Smithsonian Institution]

Elihu Vedder

National Portrait Gallery

Elaine and Willem de Kooning

National Portrait Gallery
The development of Abstract Expressionism owed much to the freewheeling atmosphere of the Eighth Street Club, established in New York City in 1949 as a place for artists to socialize and discuss art. The painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning were both members and contributed to the Club’s ground breaking 1951 exhibition, which brought attention to this new generation of avant-garde artists, known as the New York School. Elaine de Kooning was among the few women included in this male-dominated milieu. Although she was overshadowed by her more famous husband throughout her career, her admiration for his work—and his harsh criticism of hers—fueled her determination to succeed. This photograph depicts the couple in Willem’s studio, posing before one of his controversial Woman paintings. Hans Namuth made the photograph at Elaine de Kooning’s request “to establish once and for all that I did not pose for those ferocious women.”

El desarrollo del expresionismo abstracto le debe mucho al ambiente libre del Eighth Street Club, espacio establecido en la ciudad de Nueva York en 1949, donde los artistas podían reunirse y hablar de arte. Los pintores Elaine y Willem de Kooning eran miembros, y contribuyeron a una revolucionaria exposición del Club en 1951 que puso de relieve a esta nueva generación de vanguardia conocida como la Escuela de Nueva York. Elaine de Kooning era una de las pocas mujeres incluidas en esta esfera dominada por hombres. Aunque durante su carrera estuvo a la sombra de su famoso marido, su admiración por la obra de él—y la dura crítica de su propio arte que recibió a cambio—alimentaron su empeño de triunfar. Esta foto muestra a la pareja en el estudio de Willem, delante de una de sus controvertidas pinturas de mujeres. Hans Namuth tomó la foto a petición de Elaine para “establecer de una vez y por todas que no fui la modelo para esas mujeres feroces”.

Edwin Howland Blashfield in his studio, standing in front of his easel painting "Rain," [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Edwin Howland Blashfield, American painter, 1848-1936.

Weiner, Mina Rieur, ed., Edwin Howland Blashfield: Master American Muralist. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. in association with Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, 2009, pg. 142.

Edwin Howland Blashfield (left) with his assistants Vincent Aderente (center) and Alonzo E. Foringer (right) standing in front of "Wisconsin" (Wisconsin State Capitol dome crown) at the Vanderbilt Gallery, New York [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Edwin Howland Blashfield, American painter, 1848-1936.

Blashfield, Edwin Howland.

Weiner, Mina Rieur, ed., Edwin Howlan Blashfield: Master American Muralist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., in association with Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, 2009, pg. 129.

Edwin Austin Abbey

National Portrait Gallery

Edward Laning Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery

Edward Laning Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery

Edward Austin Abbey

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print on cabinet card : b&w ; 15 x 10 cm., on card 17 x 11 cm.

Head and shoulders portrait of muralist Edward Austin Abbey in profile.

Edna Reindel

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 26 x 21 cm.

Drum

National Museum of the American Indian

Draft of chapter from unpublished book on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Archives of American Art
Manuscript : 7 p. : typescript ; 28 x 22 cm.

Typescript seven page manuscript with extensive handwritten notes, corrections, and additions. Packard writes of River and Kahlo's life in the 1940s. She writes about Rivera's health problems and reaction to World War II, as well as Rivera and Kahlo's artistic lives and household routines.

Doll tableau

National Museum of the American Indian

Diego Rivera, from the portfolio "Portraiture"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Diego Rivera with his mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 12 x 17 cm.

Portrait of Diego Rivera with his work at the mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera with his idols

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 19 x 20 cm. (image) 35 x 20 cm. (sheet)

Rivera sitting with arm around a sculpture in Coyoacan, Mexico.

Diego Rivera at work on "Allegory of California," San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, 1931 [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Hurlburt, Laurance P., "Mexican Muralists in the United States," Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989, pg. 105.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Diego Rivera, Mexican painter, 1886-1957.

Diego Rivera at work on "Allegory of California," San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, 1931 [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Hurlburt, Laurance P., "Mexican Muralists in the United States," Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989, pg. 105.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Diego Rivera, Mexican painter, 1886-1957.

Diego Rivera

National Portrait Gallery
Diego Rivera is remembered for his public art and murals in Mexico and the United States. During the late 1920s and the 1930s, he painted monumental and powerful murals for public buildings, including a twenty-seven-panel fresco called Detroit Industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts. His 1933 mural for Rockefeller Center was canceled when he included among its portraits one of Lenin. Rivera was well known in the United States by the time he created this self-portrait. It is one of numerous lithographs he produced as a means of supporting himself while working on more time- consuming projects. The lively crosshatching strokes used to model the contours of his face relate directly to the technique he employed in his monumental murals. Notably, this image was used by several major newspapers to accompany his obituary, and thus, in significant ways, it is how the American public often pictured him.

Diego Rivera es recordado por sus obras de arte público y sus murales en México y Estados Unidos. Entre las décadas de 1920 y 1930 pintó murales de impactante monumentalidad para edificios públicos estadounidenses, entre ellos un fresco de veintisiete paneles llamado Detroit Industry (Detroit Institute of Arts). Su mural de 1933 para el Rockefeller Center fue cancelado cuando incluyó entre los represen- tados a Lenin. Para la fecha en que creó este autorretrato, Rivera era ya muy conocido en Estados Unidos. La obra es una de numerosas litografías que produjo para ganarse la vida mientras trabajaba en proyectos de más largo alcance. El vigoroso sombreado a rayas con que moldea los contornos de su rostro remite directamente a la técnica que empleaba en sus grandes murales. Cabe notar que esta imagen fue utilizada por varios periódicos importantes para acompañar su obituario y por lo tanto, de manera significativa, es así como lo recuerda el público estadounidense.

Diego Rivera

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 24 x 18 cm.
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