Art museums rarely present portrait exhibitions, and for good reason. Unless the artist is Michelangelo or his equivalent, portrait shows rarely attract large audiences. People might cherish their own family albums, but who wants to look at pictures of someone else's dead relatives?
Consider, though, that every portrait encapsulates a story. While relatively few are historically significant or aesthetically exceptional, all portraits are slices of lives.
A portrait exhibition can be just as rewarding, and just as edifying, as a show of landscapes or still lifes, if the exhibition's narrative uncovers information well worth knowing.
This is the case with "Portraits of a People" at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, a collection of about 70 paintings, daguerreotypes, photographs, prints, drawings, and cut-paper silhouettes, some from Philadelphia collections. The show was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass.
The "people" of the title are African Americans from the late-18th through the 19th centuries. Some, like Philadelphia clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, founders of the Free African Society, became important historical figures. Several other subjects were leaders in early Liberia, the African country founded by freed slaves.
Still others were ordinary people raised to prominence by the act of being portrayed. George Washington's cook, a man named Hercules, is believed to have been one of these, along with a Muslim named Yarrow Mamout, painted superbly by Charles Willson Peale.
The exhibition demonstrates that Americans of African descent weren't completely invisible to artists during the colonial period and the early years of the republic. However, until the mid-20th century, they rarely figured in mainstream art history except as anonymous servants and laborers, often as caricatures.
Guest curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, attempts through this show to reveal how some African Americans confirmed and celebrated their racial identity within a society that marginalized them.
Shaw has done an impressive job of tracking down 18th- and 19th-century images that rarely appear in standard art histories. The artists are both black and white; some are well-known (Gilbert Stuart, Raphaelle Peale) while others are little-known, self-taught limners.
All the subjects are black, although some are obviously of mixed race, and a few, such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Virginia native who emigrated to Liberia about 1829, look predominantly European. Roberts was painted about 1844 by Thomas Wilcox Sully, namesake of his more famous artist father.
The Sullys, along with the Peales (also father and son), Stuart, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Eastman Johnson are among the more accomplished painters represented. Others, such as William Matthew Prior, Joshua Johnston, and Julien Hudson, display a more naive technique.
Aesthetically, this makes for a mixed collection; while several portraits are splendid, most are at best ordinary. Yet this isn't a meaningful deficiency, because the history is so fascinating. For instance, Stuart's luminous portrait of the man believed to be Washington's cook reveals not only a personality but a tale of liberation.
Hercules served the first president when he lived in Philadelphia. When Washington's second term expired and he was about to return, with his slaves, to Virginia, Hercules disappeared.
Another strong portrait, once attributed to Stuart, depicts an elegantly dressed black man holding a flute and sheet music. Some scholars believe the sitter to be Barillai Law, a Revolutionary War veteran. The painting normally hangs in the diplomatic reception rooms at the State Department.
One of the more poignant works is a double portrait in pastel of New Orleans merchant Ashur Moses Nathan and his half-black son, Achile. Created in 1845 by Jules Lion, the picture both acknowledges Nathan's paternity and foreshadows his adoption of Achile in 1859, which resulted in his leaving the young man most of his estate.
Eastman Johnson's The Freedom Ring of 1860 tells another touching story, of how young mixed-race children were purchased out of slavery ("redeemed") by abolitionists during the Civil War. As a genre picture, it's mildly sentimental, but the back story transforms this simple image of a child gazing at a ring into a powerful indictment of slavery.
The show ends on a strong and familiar Philadelphia note — a portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by Thomas Eakins, paired with Tanner's own Whistleresque portrait of his mother, Sarah, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In these paintings, two strains of American art, black and white, merge eloquently. However, it would take decades before Americans on both sides of the color line would recognize the seismic shift in cultural attitudes that they announce.
Hearts and minds meet.
In the exhibition "A Conversation at the Table" at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, West Chester artist Lonnie Graham seeks to create a communal, cross-cultural examination of how mind, body and spirit function as common denominators of humanity.
"Conversation" is a multifaceted project that involves four community arts organizations and about three dozen individual artists. It's constructed around a suite of large portrait photographs that Graham made of his collaborators, a "meditation chamber," a projected video of a performance by members of Taller Puertorriqueño, and a large, altarlike table bearing ceramic "spirit vessels."
The installation strains to be pervasively spiritual and ends up touchy-feely. It actually might have been so at the opening, when the Taller performance was live and the gallery was full of people writing down their earliest memories on little cards for subsequent visitors to read.
They might also have "meditated" in the fabric-lined chamber with the cute black cushions, as if anyone could think deep thoughts in a room full of so many visual distractions.
In practice, "Conversations" feels more like an abandoned stage set, full of clues to its intentions but lacking any truly animating spirit. The "spirit vessels" (courtesy of the Clay Studio and Kimberly Camp, ex-Barnes Foundation director) aren't anything special, nor is the long table, made (symbolically, I suspect) of African wood and adorned with embroidered cloths. Visually, the most arresting things in the room are Graham's portraits, which are not identified. One presumes this is supposed to emphasize the project's communal character.
With its emphasis on collaboration and multicultural hand-holding, "Conversations" has the look and feel of an exercise designed to impress funders; in this case, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.
Having established its ability to work and play well with others, perhaps the workshop can return to what it does most effectively, creating and displaying the most stimulating current art, such as the concurrent Shahzia Sikander show.
Art | Faces of History
"Portraits of a People" continues at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, through July 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $10 general, $8 for visitors 60 and older, $5 for college students, and $3 for visitors age 7 to 17. Information: 302-571-9590 or www.delart.org.
"Lonnie Graham: A Conversation at the Table" continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1315 Cherry St., through June 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 215-568-1111 or www.fabricworkshopand