For years I’ve criticized the National Gallery of Art for its insistence that the story of American art is the story of white men: In 2009, the NGA re-opened its West Wing American galleries to an art history of white men, and almost no one else. Two years later there was no improvement. Especially considering that the NGA is substantially supported by American taxpayers, the situation was an institutional embarrassment.
Slowly, very, very slowly, that’s beginning to change: Earlier this year the NGA acquired a minor Robert Scott Duncanson painting and promptly installed it. Then over the weekend I noticed that the NGA has hung a third painting by an African-American artist: Henry Ossawa Tanner’s minor The Seine (c. 1902, above right). That makes three paintings by African-Americans that the NGA has on view: The Duncanson, the Turner and this best-of-the-best Joshua Johnson group portrait. The NGA has even added a painting by a woman: a Mary Cassatt (a strange inclusion considering that the painting was apparently made in France).
The NGA should not stop there: Four paintings by non-white-men out of about 170 still isn’t reflective of America’s art history. But at least the NGA is moving in a more accurate direction.
Related: The NGA’s exhibition record is even worse. Depending on how you count one sorta-solo show, the museum has not originated an exhibition of a female artist in almost 20 years.