Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ambrotypes from the National Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 2, 2013

It's hard to believe that I'm already seeing exhibits that will end in June, but it's true.  I'm not sure if that's because I've taken a couple of days off here and there and seen several shows in one day, or if the Smithsonian hasn't put on as many shows this year.  Whenever I think I might run out of temporary exhibits to see, I remind myself of the system's permanent collection - I'll never have seen everything!

This show is in a little alcove at the Portrait Gallery.  I saw a show there before once on miniatures.  It has low light, so I suspect they put items in there that are delicate and would be damaged by being displayed in one of the regular rooms.  This alcove is also a good spot to view small objects, as you can get quite close to them and take in the detail.

So what, you ask is an ambrotype?  Good question; I'd never heard the word before I saw the title of this display.  It's an underexposed collodion negative that was made to appear as a positive image when viewed against a dark background.  All clear?  Me neither.  Basically, it's a photograph, except the technicalities are different.  They were cheaper to produce than daguerreotypes and were packaged in presentation cases, for use as gifts or mementos.  They were popular for over a decade.

Several Civil War figures are on display here including George Armstrong Custer, who, although now best known for his ignominious defeat, was a Civil War hero, commended for his bravery and battlefield daring.  Two women of note in the 19th century (and new to me) were also pictured: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, the "Girl Orator," an ardent abolitionist and women's rights advocate, who captivated audiences with her "youth, intensity and dedication to reform" and Mary Ann Brown Patten, the first woman to sail a clipper ship around Cape Horn.  Her husband was the captain, who fell ill with tuberculosis, and the first mate had been jailed for insubordination.  Cape Horn is a dangerous location, and the fact that she was able to captain the ship, although only 19 years old and pregnant at the time, is amazing.

There are also several pictures of Abraham Lincoln, taken early in his career, before he grew his beard.  So much has been said about Lincoln, especially in recent years, that I won't add to the chatter.  If you're interested in Lincoln or the Civil War generally, there's much at the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum to entertain you for quite a while.

Verdict: This is a nice little exhibit.  Very easily managed in a lunch hour, and you get some information about the persons pictured.  You could combine this with a trip to the Archives exhibit or the One Life show.

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