• Smithsonian American Art Museum on Context's scholar-led American Biography walking tour

Walk Description

The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, housed in adjoining buildings, provide a unique lens to probe American history and identity through and the biographies of key figures. In this three-hour walking seminar led by an art historian or curator, we'll explore the main works in each gallery and discuss the main themes of American art over the past 150 years.

We begin with Washington D.C. and its urban history, as the museum's building—originally the U.S. Patent Office—is a major work of Washington architecture. A cornerstone of the original l'Enfant plan, this will give us a good introduction to some of figures we'll meet once inside the museum, including the architect Robert Mills and Pierre L'Enfant himself.

Once inside, we'll focus on the Portrait Gallery first, one of the most important collections of American art in the country. We'll look at both the art as art—including a discussion of aesthetic trends, the role of art in America, and such key artists as Houdon, Charles Wilson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart—and also the historical ideas, moments, and events that they portray. Equal part history and art history lesson, our attempt will be to explore the true nature of portraiture as public biography.

The second half of our walk will look at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), which adjoins the Portrait Gallery. SAAM is the oldest federal collection of art in Washington, and one of its most diverse. Spanning three centuries, the galleries contain major works by signature 18th century artists Copely and Stuart; 19th century movements like the the Hudson River School; and a diversity of 20th century works by Hopper, Wyeth, and others. Having the laid the groundwork for a discussion of the role of art in American, we'll use these galleries to go deeper into any of the topics that have interested the group along the way.


Duration: 3 hours
Category: Art
Venues: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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    Victoria Tillson

    Victoria Tillson earned her B.A. in the History of Art from The Johns Hopkins University (2001) and her A.M. and Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University (2009). She began working for Context Travel in 2001 when it was formerly Scala Reale. She is excited to share her love for her native city, Washington, DC as a docent there. Since 2005, Victoria taught for 5 years as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and two summers as a faculty member of Middlebury College’s Italian School. She then joined Elon University’s Department of Foreign Languages as an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Italian in 2010. She now operates an Independent Educational Consultancy in the Washington, D.C. area, while maintaining her research interests in modern art and architecture, international politics, Rome, and 20th century Italian literature and cinema. Victoria has published several articles and has presented papers at over 20 national and international conferences on topics ranging from Dante’s conception of love to Mussolini’s vision for Rome.

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    Abram Fox

    A native of the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Abram Fox earned his Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland in 2014 with a dissertation on 18th century transatlantic artistic exchange, with a focus on the workshop of Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. He also holds a M.A. in art history, and double B.A. degrees in history and art history, also from the University of Maryland. An intellectual explorer, his research interests include instructional and museum pedagogy, the aesthetics of comic books and video games, and representations of sport and gender in contemporary popular culture. Abram presently serves as the Vice President of the Laurel Historical Society, and is in the midst of designing the institution’s upcoming exhibition which examines the relationship between local and national mass media coverage of events in the greater Washington, D.C. region.