Whatever her critics may say, it’s fair to assume that society hostess and former Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Chairman Mao, Elvis Presley, or Muhammad Ali. One thing they all share, however, is that each has been immortalized by Andy Warhol. Quinn’s portrait, originally commissioned by The Washingtonian to illustrate a 1986 cover story about her, is included in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery opening Friday, along with works by John Singer Sargent, Chuck Close, Salvador Dalí, and David Smith.
“Capital Portraits: Treasures From Washington Private Collections” is a pristinely organized collection of works dating from the mid-18th century to 2008, and it provides some tantalizing insight into a wealth of artistic gems currently hanging in homes all over town. It’s hard not to envy Dan Snyder (no, not that Dan Snyder) and Tom Breit, who are the lenders of a stunning Chuck Close tapestry of Kate Moss; not to mention Quinn and Ina Ginsburg, both of whom lent their own Warhol portraits. In addition to providing a rare look at some hidden masterpieces, the show offers a nice snapshot of Washington history, from Dwight Eisenhower’s amateur painting of his wife, Mamie, to John Robinson’s 1947 portrait of Alonzo J. Aden—one of the first African-American art dealers in the country.
What’s mostly remarkable in an exhibition of privately owned work is how high the quality is. “Nat,” Chuck Close’s painting of his father-in-law, is a breathtaking close-up, with every vein, pore, and crease on the subject’s face rendered in flawless detail. Bernard Boutet de Monvel’s portrait of Gwendolyn Cafritz has a striking simplicity, with the lush silk of her dress and the poised, almost confrontational expression on her face helping to ratify her historical reputation as one of the most powerful women in town. And a painting by 34-year-old New York artist Kehinde Wiley takes a vivid, tongue-in-cheek look at the absurd grandiosity of hip-hop culture, placing a young man in a camouflage jacket in front of an ornate red-and-gold Renaissance backdrop.
Curator Carolyn Carr stumbled on the concept for the show when she encountered a portrait of Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) in Martin’s home, and she says that discovering many of the other works involved a lot of sleuthing. But the exhibition as a whole has a surprisingly cohesive feel, saying almost as much about the people who collect portraits as those who pose for them. If we can’t all have our own Warhols hanging over the fireplace, at least we can marvel, briefly, at the people who do.
“Capital Portraits: Treasures From Washington Private Collections” opens Friday at the National Portrait Gallery. The show runs through September 5.