WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian National Portrait gallery experienced an enormous increase in attendance last year after the addition of portraits for former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. But perhaps the most unusual incident at the NPG involved a young artist from Chicago, identifying herself only as ‘The Next Artist,’ who arrived carrying a portrait, insisting it be displayed.
“She walked in here,” said a welcome desk attendant, “eyes blazing and all smiles. She said she had something to fill in near the George one.”
By ‘George one’ she meant South Gallery 240 where a portrait of George Washington hangs.
“Then she showed me. It was a portrait of herself. She was wearing the same dress in life and in the portrait, and she was still smiling. She was a very nice person. And a very good artist. And she looked beautiful in her dress in both the portrait and in front of my desk there.”
The Next Artist explained she had come up with an answer to the ‘George Gesture Question.’ As a viewer faces the painting, Washington seems to be offering something off canvas to the left. This gesture, though a staple of portraiture at the time of the painting, has often baffled the public.
One tourist interpreted it figuratively. “He’s gesturing to the new country. ‘Here you go,’ Washington says. ‘Here’s the United States.'”
Other viewers have been less kind. “It looks like he’s practicing a bad rendition of a stupid monologue from Hamlet. I hate art.”
“It was Bill. I was no where near that tree.” said another.
The Next Artist’s claim that Washington could be gesturing to another portrait intrigued the welcome desk attendant.
“Me,” said The Next Artist. “He could be gesturing to a portrait of me. Why not?”
Gallery staff members began to assemble around The Next Artist as they discussed the possibility of her solution. It seemed an engaging artistic possibility. Why not indeed.
Meanwhile tourists were left to their own devices. Some seemed lost and meandered into unpopular gallery rooms for minutes at a time. Security cameras revealed later that others went about, at long last, touching one-of-a-kind portraits with their grubby fingers.
“The paint’s dry,” stated one such delinquent. “I didn’t do anything.”
Finally, Director of the NPG, Kim Sajet, appeared and sent employees back to the their stations.
“Miss Sajet was very nice,” said The Next Artist. She took me out for coffee and told me what she liked about my work. She said they have very specific parameters for their selection process for the NPG, but she appreciated my enthusiasm. She then said she was sure there was a portrait of someone historical and famous gesturing off canvas in the National Portrait Gallery in London, and asked if I’ve tried to display my work there.”