Spotlight: Famous Faces

The Heinz History Center receives one of the largest loans ever from the National Portrait Gallery — all with a focus on faces from Pittsburgh.
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FROM LEFT: MARTHA GRAHAM, 1938, BY PAUL MELTSNER, OIL ON CANVAS. HENRY AND HELEN CLAY FRICK, C. 1910, BY EDMUND CHARLES TARBELL, OIL ON CANVAS. BILLY “SWEET PEA” STRAYHORN, C. 1945 (PRINTED 1979), BY WILLIAM GOTTLIEB, GELATIN SILVER PRINT.
PHOTOS COURTESY NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

The Heinz History Center wants to make one thing very clear with its new “Smithsonian’s Portraits of Pittsburgh: Works from the National Portrait Gallery” exhibition.

While the history center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, and while the Smithsonian often loans its collections for traveling exhibitions, works from the National Portrait Gallery do not typically travel.

Especially at this volume — 56 portraits were sent.

“It’s one of the largest loans they’ve ever lent anywhere at one time,” says curator Leslie Przybylek, noting that the history center also is receiving digital reprints along with other media from the Smithsonian to accompany the portraits. The additional material will help showcase more than 100 Americans with connections to western Pennsylvania.

The two institutions collaborated to create this exhibition (another rarity; the Smithsonian typically curates based on a theme, not for one particular region) to showcase contributions to the world that came from western Pennsylvania in areas such as industry, social criticism, the arts and sports.

You’ll find many well-known Pittsburgh faces — August Wilson, Fred Rogers, Rachel Carson — as well as some people you may not know have Pittsburgh connections, such as Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern American dance who was born in Allegheny.

“I think that’s a reflection of just how crucial this region has been over time,” Przybylek says.

The History Center has plenty to contribute to the exhibition, including an early self-portrait by Jane Grey Swisshelm — a photograph from the Portrait Gallery will accompany it. In her early life in Pittsburgh, when the portrait was painted, Swisshelm was known for her dedication to women’s rights and abolition; she even started her own newspapers devoted to the causes. After moving to Minnesota, where the photograph was taken, she still championed those causes but was also known for siding with settlers in property conflicts with the native Sioux. It proves the point, Przybylek says, that this exhibit is as much about the stories behind the portraits as it is the art.

“These two images are really cool little examples of images in the exhibit that tell the full story of this woman,” she says.

The History Center also lobbied the Portrait Gallery to gain a well-known image depicting Henry Clay Frick and his daughter, Helen Frick.

“It’s a lovely image,” Przybylek says, but also, she says, an important image because it makes you wonder what legacy the Fricks would have in Pittsburgh if not for Helen’s philanthropy.

Another image of note is a caricature by Jack Davis, one of the founding cartoonists for MAD Magazine. He was commissioned to draw Joe Namath for the cover of TIME Magazine, but Namath wasn’t having a great season, so Davis was told to include other players in his work. Two of the players he ended up including also have western Pennsylvanian ties: Johnny Unitas and Terry Bradshaw.

Also on display will be a dagger-like object reportedly used in the assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick following the Homestead Strike, a pocket watch owned by George Westinghouse and a suit Gene Kelly wore in “Singin’ in the Rain” that’s never before been on public display.

Other components to the exhibit will be a spot to pose for your own portrait and a chance to vote on who you think is missing.

“It’s also one of the things we’re looking at: What does it mean to have a National Collection?” Przybylek says. “Who gets to say who’s in a National Collection?”

Through Oct. 4

Strip District: 1212 Smallman St.

412/454-6000, heinzhistorycenter.org

Categories: Arts & Entertainment