Arts Desk

Reviewed: “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio” at the National Portrait Gallery

Lincoln 2“Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio” documents the nation’s capital during the Civil War, focusing on the city itself more than its role as the Union’s seat of power. The National Portrait Gallery’s small exhibit offers a colorful look at a nearly primitive city 150 years ago; at the war’s outset, cows grazed on the Mall, the Washington Monument was an unfinished spike, the Capitol had no dome, and all three landmarks were in close proximity to a fetid open canal. (An 1862 map in the exhibit shows large swaths of the 10-mile-square city undeveloped, although a close look reveals such still-familiar locales as Fort Totten, Rockville Turnpike, and “Tenallytown.”)

The war cast a pall on the city, of course—live-fire exchanges are memorialized in dramatic cross-hatchings, internal passes were required to move about the city, and a flood of injured soldiers crammed into tight quarters—but the exhibit also notes some lighter moments. In 1864, as President Lincoln was visiting the troops at Fort Stevens, a battle erupted, and a young officer (according to legend, it was future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) shouted to the 6-foot-4 president, “Get down, you fool!”

The core of the exhibit is photographic, including a series of images from an 1865 military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue (pictured), which at the time was dotted with humble, five-story buildings. But the exhibit’s biggest disappointment is its almost exclusive use of modern reproductions of the vintage photographs; one would have thought a museum with the archival resources of the National Portrait Gallery could have rustled up some originals.

Through January 25, 2015, at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C., 11:30 am-7:00 pm daily.

UPDATE, Dec. 23, 3:40 p.m.: After we posted this review, a National Portrait Gallery spokeswoman wrote in to explain that the gallery is "very careful about the objects we put on view in that room, as the conditions in the room can vary given that the doors open directly to the outside."

Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery

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  • m

    Many of the images were likely originally on glass plates, making them fragile and difficult to transfer and display. I much prefer well-made reprints if it means saving the irreplaceable original plates from damage.

  • d

    Indeed, as m commented, sometimes reproductions are necessary to protect the originals, especially in galleries with too much natural light.

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