Pleasant surprises in Washington D.C.

The next day, we managed to squeeze in two more museums. A cousin had recommended the International Spy Museum. It was certainly different. Firstly, guests were asked to adopt an identity then learn the details of their cover. The museum covered quite a range of different types of spies from ninjas to World War II and of course, the Cold War era. There were a few interactive pieces as well. I almost joined hubby crawl through the vents but my claustrophobia set in so I backed out. I was already in the vents but I didn’t know how long it was and panic was slowly creeping in. So I actually crawled backwards. There were a lot of cool things, if you’re into spy stuff. To give you an idea of some of the exhibits, click here.

International Spy Museum

Across the street from the International Spy Museum is The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. These two museums are housed in one building. According to Wikipedia, the building is “the third oldest federal building in the city, constructed between 1836 and 1867, the marble and granite museum has porticoes modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.” Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see that from the photo below.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

These museums were a pleasant surprise and they have since become two of my favourite museums. They weren’t on our list to visit but its location across the street from the International Spy Museum was  convenient. We didn’t know what to expect. We initially thought it was a gallery of portraits and it was for the most part, but it also contained non-portrait art pieces like these folk arts. It was such a pleasant surprise to see an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s wire portraits. I had to do a wire portrait for class many years ago. It’s basically a three dimensional drawing of a portrait using only wires, pair of pliers and your hands to shape the wires. I did a bust of Elvis back then. Here’s an article from the Washington Post on the exhibit.

On the second floor is the exhibit of “America’s Presidents”. One of the highlights of this museum is the iconic Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, the first president of the United States. The portraits ranged from the very formal, classical style like that of the Lansdowne portrait (which was almost all of them), to more contemporary styles like those of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton (you’ll see what I mean below).

The three portraits that stood out for me were those of John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

John F. Kennedy: Right at the top of the stairs on the second floor is a portrait of John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Koonig created in the style of Abstract Expressionist. The technique used reminded me of gesture painting with its broad brush strokes.  The link I’ve provided above has an image of the painting so you’ll see what I mean. As for JFK’s formal portrait, I looked forward to seeing it along side the other presidential portraits. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought his portrait would be bigger. Not sure if you can see the brush strokes from the photo below but the technique used reminds me of Impressionist or maybe even Post-Impressionist style. I’m certainly not an expert in art techniques so these are just my impressions.

John F. Kennedy

Bill Clinton: The artist who created the portrait is Chuck Close. “He began by taking a photograph of the former president that was used for a 2005 cover of New York magazine. Then for this painting, he applied a grid to the photograph and his blank canvas and inserted colorful abstract modules into each square. Taken all together they form Clinton’s image.” (

Bill Clinton

George W. Bush: This turned out to be my favourite portrait. Are you shocked? I was just as surprised as you are when I realized this. This portrait drew me in. It engages the viewer. If you look at the portrait below, you will notice that the former president doesn’t have a tie or jacket on. He sits on the edge of a couch like he’s ready to talk to you. He has a warm and open expression. In comparison, all the other portraits of former presidents are very formal so this was quite refreshing. Click here for the blog on this portrait you may find interesting and reaffirms my impressions.

George W. Bush

There is also a beautiful covered courtyard inside this gallery.

Courtyard, Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery

To wrap up our short visit of Washington D.C., we made our way to the U.S. Capitol. It is an impressive looking building.

Capitol Hill (front)

Capitol Hill (back)

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About May Dayao

Carpe diem!
This entry was posted in Travel, USA, Washington DC and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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