Monday, May 2, 2011

Docent is a Noun

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
I led tours at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery yesterday. This year marks my fourteenth year as a docent at this wonderful institution. The word docent is a noun and means someone who leads guided tours. Being a docent is definitely more of a verb for me since being a docent is all about the action of leading tours, which is an action that brings me great pleasure. I count myself incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with work that I enjoy in a building that never seems to stop fascinating me. My steps quicken as I approach one of my favorite places in Washington, D.C. In fact, the National Portrait Gallery is really one of my favorite places in the world, which is saying something. Those who have been to the Portrait Gallery know what I mean. Those who have not are in for a treat whenever they come to Washington, D.C. and take the time to visit. I am inspired by much of the work that is housed in this historic space, but what sends me to the moon is sharing as much as possible with visitors. So, for those of you who are not able to make it to the museum with me, I am going to share one of my favorite pieces in the collection. I have yet to lead a tour without including this painting in the proceedings.

Prior to the renovations of the museum building, which took six long years, I stood in front of this portrait in a vain attempt to lock the image into my mind. I knew that reproductions would never do justice to this painting. Then, when I first saw the piece before the building was reopened to the public, I was elated. I knew at that moment that I would be back leading tours, even though my schedule had become packed with activity during the six years the building was closed. Well, enough blather about the piece. Here it is:

Self- Portrait of John Singleton Copley

This is a self- portrait of John Singleton Copley who is known as one of the best portrait painters during the Colonial period. There has been much made of the fact that Copley was a self-taught artist. He did have opportunities to see artwork in his native Boston, but he complained to expatriate American artist Benjamin West that there was no work that could help him develop as an artist. He moved to England to study (studying in Italy and France as well)  and remained in England for the rest of his life. During that time he made the painting that I include here.

There are several reasons why I am moved by this piece. First, I am impressed with Copley's composition since it was a fairly unusual approach. Copley shows us his fine abilities as a draftsman by painting a self- portrait that has him looking away from the viewer. Copley had to have placed mirrors in such a way as to be portrayed looking away from us. The light source is beautifully rendered with emotional immediacy. Finally, I am consistently moved by the brushwork and the fact that this image still looks fresh and contemporary even though the painting was completed between 1780 and 1784. With that in mind, I want to also point out that at this time period all painters had to make their own paints and store them in animal bladders. This would likely have ended my career as an artist! Tube paints were not invented until 1841. That said, I also want to mention here that Copley was a pastel painter as well. So, not only do I admire his work, but we also share a common affinity for a medium that is second to none in its ability to render surface textures.

I hope that you enjoyed seeing the painting of Copley on my blog and that you will seek his work out the next time you are in a museum. If you would like to be on my mailing list, I will be happy to send you my tour schedule. This schedule changes monthly and I lead tours only four times per month. I would love to welcome you to the National Portrait Gallery and introduce you to Copley in person! Just contact me through my website at:

That's me with Thomas Edison while leading a tour at the National Portrait Gallery

1 comment:

  1. Lynn - your passion is palpable...which is one reason you are such a great docent/teacher. I hope to bring my brother and sister-in-law to one of your tours. I'm thinking you might even get him excited about JSC!