A national portrait gallery, whether it’s ours or theirs, is forced to finesse the tension between teaching history and displaying art. I enjoyed the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “1812: A Nation Emerges,” but faulted it for not grappling more with the art, the artists and the embedded iconography that makes these paintings so fascinating. Instead, it is about what it says it is about: The war, the unloved, little understood footnote to the great Napoleonic wars of Europe that many believed was a second war of independence for our struggling, upstart Republic.
But why go to a gallery and spend time with objects if those objects serve only to illustrate history? You can get that from a book. The encounter with a painting is a different experience altogether, and I wish that this admirable effort to paint a broad, cultural picture of the war had been expanded a bit to consider the revolution in representation that was happening during the same period. My review from the Sunday Washington Post.