Artists on Tap at the National Portrait Gallery

Duke Ellington, arguably the most famous musician to come out of Washington, D.C., was not serious about piano until around the age of 14. The jazz trailblazer, who grew up at Ward Place, just southwest of Dupont Circle, outside of Georgetown, was more interested in baseball. Naturally he landed his first job selling concessions at Washington Senator games, where he said he got his first experiences with stage fright, yelling to fans: “Peanuts, popcorn, chewing gum, candy, cigars, cigarettes and scorecards!”

This was early 1900s Washington, a Washington that had many more empty lots than it does today. Ellington said he and his friends would play baseball at an old tennis court on 16th Street. In his autobiography, “Music is My Mistress,” Ellington writes that President Teddy Roosevelt would stop by on his horse and watch them play.

“When he got ready to go, he would wave and we would wave at him. That was Teddy Roosevelt—just him and his horse, nobody guarding him,” Ellington, who died in 1974, wrote a year earlier.

A much different Washington than the Washington we know today. Still the legacy of Ellington, who produced what has been called the “single most impressive body of composition in American jazz” remains around the district today. A small piece of Ellington’s history has been installed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s “Bravo!” which is an ongoing exhibition at the institution. The musician appears on original artwork for a Time magazine cover from August 1956, in a collection that includes portraits of Thelonious Monk, Joan Baez, Elvis Presley and George Gershwin, among others.

The exhibit can be found on the third floor, the musicians are complemented with another Time magazine exhibition, “Champions,” a collection of portraits of world-champion athletes. There’s boxer Muhammad Ali, baseball hall of famer Reggie Jackson, legendary Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown, Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, and basketball star Oscar Robertson. There’s also a cover dedicated to two of the greatest athletes ever in their respective sports, Boston Celtics hall of famer Larry Bird and hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Their cover is from the 1985, the year that Bird’s Celtics lost to Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals and the year that Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, in their third straight finals appearance, beat the Philadelphia Flyers for the Stanley Cup. Edmonton would go on to win the next three cups, bringing the total to five.


The National Portrait Gallery right now also includes “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze,” a look at 53 celebrities, including Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Peter Dinklage, Eminem, Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, Eva Longoria, Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant.

Pitt’s portrait, a 2013 oil painting from artist Colin Davidson, caught my attention. According to Smithsonian records, Davidson and Pitt met up at various times in London, Surrey and Buckinghamshire, where they would paint together, and where Davidson began a series of portraits of the actor. The piece on display shows a contemplative Pitt just before he cut his long hair for the role of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier in 2014’s “Fury.”

Davidson said of his noncommissioned portrait that he seeks a “vulnerable quality” in his portraits, attempting to separate the human subject from the celebrity.

Katy Perry’s “Cupcake Katy” portrait comes from New York City-based artist Will Cotton, who worked with the mega pop star in creating the fantasy world that appears in her “California Gurls” music video. The portrait is from 2010, the same year Perry matched Michael Jackson in delivering five No. 1 hits from a single album, “Teenage Dream.” Cotton said of Perry: “She’s over-the-top, she’s very sugary, saccharine.” “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” is on display of the first floor at the Portrait Gallery through July 10.


Other exhibitions at the gallery include “Hollywood and Time: Celebrity Covers,” a traveling exhibition on display through September 11. It features 32 original artworks, paintings and sculptures, with a lineup that includes Cecil B. de Mille, Howard Hughes, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Rudy Vallee, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Meryl Streep, among others.

Also, in February the gallery opened “Kevin Spacey as President Francis J. Underwood,” a nod to Spacey’s Golden Globe-winning character from the Netflix series “House of Cards.”

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