At the Portrait Gallery: ‘Forces of Nature,’ for good and ill
National Portrait Gallery show features subjects who have helped advance — and, in some instances, resisted — environmental stewardship.
The term for a likeness that captures a person in her or his defining home or workplace is “environmental portrait.” There are many of those in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism.” But nearly as common are pictures such as the show’s oldest entry, an unknown artist’s small rendering of Henry David Thoreau, circa 1863, in which the “Walden” author looks as if he’s dressed for afternoon tea.Of course, he might have been. Thoreau’s celebrated haven in the woods was a short walk from the home of the property’s owner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author’s close friend. “Walden” remains influential for people who seek a return to nature, but Thoreau didn’t venture nearly so far into the wilderness as other 19th- and early-20th-century Americans pictured in this survey focusing on scientists, politicians, writers, artists and others who have helped advance — and, in some instances, resisted — environmental stewardship.Carl Everton Moon’s 1909 photograph of author and naturalist John Burroughs and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir shows them together at the Grand Canyon. Underwood & Underwood’s 1903 stereoscopic photo of presidential outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt and a group of companions (including Muir) was made at the base of a giant sequoia. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, also traveled far into the West, but Pirie MacDonald’s 1909 photo of him is no wilder than that of Thoreau.The museum owns more than 2,000 artworks originally made for the cover of Time magazine, so it’s hardly a surprise that some of them are included in this show. Mathias Klarwein’s 1970 illustration splits the face of ecologist and professor Barry Commoner between full color and reversed black and white, keyed to landscape backdrops that are, respectively, utopian and catastrophic. Also made for Time are Raul Vega’s 1980 photograph of cosmologist Carl Sagan standing in the surf fully clothed, and another split image that’s not technically a portrait: “Toxic Wastes,” James Marsh’s 1985 acrylic-on-board painting in which an anonymous man’s head turns skeletal below the surface of an apparently corrosive body of water.Two other pieces of Time cover art may come as thematic surprises. Mark Hess’s 1982 painting depicts James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, depicted in front of a stylized rendering of the United States — whose public lands he appears ready to sell off. Dixy Lee Ray, the pro-development and pro-nuclear-power governor of Washington state from 1977 to 1981, is portrayed with her head grafted onto the body of an American goldfinch (the state bird) in David Palladini’s 1977 drawing in crayon, gouache and ink. Both former officials might be classified as forces against, rather than for, nature.The inclusion of Watt and Ray isn’t really explained, but the show is not divided equally between those who would preserve the planet and those who, for whatever reason, are not concerned about that. The only other subject who might be classified as an anti-environmentalist is Freeman Dyson, a physicist who in his final years became a critic of climate-change scientists, in a Francis Bello photograph.The show does feature portraits of people who are not known — or at least not known primarily — for their environmental campaigns. Among these are Prentice H. Polk’s photo of agricultural scientist George Washington Carver; Rudy Rodriguez’s photo of Dolores Huerta, the organizer of migrant farmworkers; and an unidentified picture of American Indian Movement activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means, depicted together by an unknown photographer during the 1973 armed occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D. But each of those subjects was concerned with the state of nature, even if indirectly.Coincidentally, all of the three-dimensional likenesses are of women. Two are bronze busts of authors: Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”) by Una Hanbury, and Mary Austin (“The Land of Little Rain”) by Ida Rauh. The third is a small 3D print: a full-body color scan of Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, who is now overseeing a different sort of memorial: a multimedia project about environmental and climate crises, “What Is Missing?”Among the most contemporary pieces are large paintings that exemplify a trend toward less formal and more playful portraits reflected in the museum’s recent acquisitions. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson communes with ants, a longtime interest, in Jennie Summerall’s 2006 painting, and tropical hues and cartoonishly outlined forms characterize Hope Gangloff’s 2019 painting of Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The contrast between these approachable images and the more solemn one of Thoreau demonstrates a notable development over the last 160 years. But that change is in art, which will probably prove less significant than the changes Mother Earth is undergoing.Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped EnvironmentalismNational Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. npg.si.edu.