- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

Women: They've gone through all sorts of personae. First, there was the evil, snake-haired Medusa.

Then, the sainted Joan of Arc of medieval times. Now, film stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Julia Roberts are put on pedestals. The exhibit "American Woman: A Selection from the National Portrait Gallery," at the S. Dillon Ripley Center's International Gallery through Dec. 1, does not examine all "The Faces of Eve," like the film of that name, but it does show the giant leaps women have made in recent times.

Culled from the Portrait Gallery's collection of more than 5,000 images, and despite its ho-hum name, the 65-object display is surprisingly good, and ranges from "Pocahontas" (anonymous artist, oil, after 1616), to "Julia Ward Howe," the sober portrait of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" lyricist (begun by John Elliott about 1910 and finished by William H. Cotton around 1925), to Navy medic David D. Geary's 1954 knock-em-dead photo "Marilyn Monroe," showing the actress entertaining U.S. troops in Korea. The exhibit probably won't equal the 175,000 visitors that the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Annie Leibovitz: Women" 2000 show pulled in, but it should attract a wide audience nonetheless including a great many men.

The exhibit drives home the singular trait that connects this diverse set of women: determination. There's a wonderful albumen silver photographic print of Sojourner Truth placed near her moving words of 1863, "I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me and aren't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man and bear the lash as well and aren't I a woman?"

The show appends Susan B. Anthony's words of 1868, "Join the Union, girls, and together say Equal Pay for Equal Work," to a 1972 bronze bust of her (cast from the 1892 original). The imposing portrait "Marian Anderson" (1957) seems to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial and say, as she did, "As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might." Samuel Johnson Woolf's sympathetic charcoal-and-chalk-on-paper drawing of Eleanor Roosevelt echoes her low-keyed directions to a group of young women: "Don't dry up by inaction, but go out and do things Don't believe what somebody tells you, but know things by your own contacts with life." (Speaking at the Todhunter girls school, June 3, 1938).

Miss Leibovitz's show concentrated on photographs of such contemporary heavy hitters as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writer Toni Morrison and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. The Portrait Gallery's display is more inclusive with lesser-knowns: artist "Agna Enters" (1907-1988), painted by John Sloan in 1920; Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman to practice law before the United States Supreme Court (depicted by Nellie Mathes Horne in 1913); and the abolitionist Quaker Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880), painted by Joseph Kyle in 1842. Images of more prominent names include environmentalist Rachel Carson (1907-1964), who chronicled the wonders of nature and its threats from chemical pollutants in "The Silent Spring;" Dorothea Dix, head of the Union Army's nurses during the Civil War and the founder of hospitals for the mentally ill (including St. Elizabeths in Washington); ace pilot Amelia Earhart; integration pioneer Rosa Parks; and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Depictions of artists, performers and writers play a large part in the Portrait Gallery's exhibition, which is attractively set in a re-creation of the gallery's period architecture and colors. Look for singers Jenny Lind, Joan Baez, Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Leontyne Price, Ethel Merman and Odetta; artists Cecilia Beaux and Georgia O'Keeffe; actresses Lynn Fontanne, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth and Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly film star Grace Kelly); dancers Isadora Duncan and Ginger Rogers; and writers Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Pearl Buck.

They're all there in a variety of mediums oils, prints, drawings, sculptures, posters and magazine covers that cover the gamut from excellent to horrible. Surprisingly, some of the posters of movies are the best. Note the gigantic ones of sex symbols Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich.

An act of Congress established the Portrait Gallery in 1962. It opened to the public six years later, but it wasn't until 1976 that Congress permitted the collecting of photographs. The gallery has now built a collection of 18,600 portraits, of which less than a third, approximately 5,000, are of women.

Why so few? There's a reason, as Carolyn Carr, deputy director of the Portrait Gallery, explains: "In the 19th-century and earlier, there was less opportunity for women to fulfill the gallery's mission of making significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States. Women couldn't run for president, head the military or earn a medical degree."

It appears the gallery is working hard to make up for lost time. "American Women" is an attractive and educational show. Its exhibit labels are especially informative and well-written.

The exhibit is the first in a series of five Portrait Gallery shows scheduled at the Ripley Center's International Gallery until the gallery's slated re-opening July 4, 2006. It's fortunate thegallery's excellent collections won't be mothballed in Washington until then. The arrangement with the International Gallery, and crowd-pulling shows like "American Women," are innovative, excellent ideas.


WHAT: "American Women: A Selection from the National Portrait Gallery"

WHERE: International Gallery, S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr., N.W.

WHEN: Daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., open Thursdays until 8 p.m., through Dec. 1

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/275-1764

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