Portraits of Pittsburgh

July 2, 2020

In our world of instant images, encountering a person in a carefully composed portrait is satisfying because it can be a glimpse into someone’s soul.

More than 100 pictures of remarkable figures in Western Pennsylvania history make up the Heinz History Center’s new exhibition, “Smithsonian’s Portraits of Pittsburgh: Works from the National Portrait Gallery,” on view through Jan. 3.

One of the delights of this show is its impressive range of media: caricatures, engravings, oil paintings, photographs, silhouettes and even miniatures, which are faces painted in watercolor, then set in small round frames.

Fred Rogers, 1990 (printed 2015), by Nathan Benn. Rogers was the creator and host of the longrunning preschool children's TV program "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." (Smithsonian Institution; gift of Nathan Benn)
Film and TV actor, dancer and singer Lena Horne, circa 1950, by Florence Meyer Homolka. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth Ann Hylton; © Florence Meyer Homolka)
A section of Pittsburgh artist Romare Bearden's 60-by-13-foot mural "Pittsburgh Recollections" is displayed Downtown in the Gateway T station. Mr. Bearden's portrait will be part of the Heinz History Center's new exhibit. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)

The show includes instantly recognizable people, from Roberto Clemente, shown holding two baseball bats, to Pittsburgh native Martha Graham, the choreographer who revolutionized modern dance.

Americans have been admiring portraits of famous people ever since the 1780s when Charles Willson Peale, who painted George Washington 60 times, opened one of the nation’s first museums in Philadelphia. On view were paintings of American Revolution patriots, many done by Peale.

Modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, painted in 1938 by Paul Meltsner. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

To simulate the experience of visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., exhibition designer Michael Dubois created white columns for the show’s entry. Galleries radiate from a long hallway and at its end, a continuous loop of images appear on a screen. Among the faces are composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, architect Henry Hobson Richardson and Hedda Hopper, a Hollidaysburg native and actress turned movie industry gossip columnist.

A 1780s engraving of George Washington shows him holding the Declaration of Independence in one hand. Nearby stands his valet, William Lee, the only enslaved person Washington freed outright in his 1799 will. Throughout the exhibition, relevant facts like these appear next to portraits, adding essential context.

Hall of Fame jockey William Hartack in his racing colors, 1958, by James Ormsbee Chapin. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © James Cox Gallery at Woodstock for the James Chapin Estate)
William Clarke's painting of Founding Father and first U.S. President George Washington, 1800. (Gift of Eleanor Morein Foster in memory of Charles Harry Foster; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Lillian Russell, a beloved actress, singer and suffragist, is shown with her hair done in the Gibson Girl style. On display is the black gown she wore to dinner aboard the Lusitania, an ocean liner. Topped by hand cut lace and finished in sweeping velvet, it’s simple but sophisticated.

A Pittsburgh passenger, Maria Harrington, admired the dress so much that the celebrity gave it to her. Russell’s frequent companion, railroad entrepreneur Diamond Jim Brady, supported her extravagant lifestyle.

Russell, who owned a jewel-encrusted bicycle made by Tiffany, had gone through three husbands before meeting and marrying Alexander P. Moore, owner and publisher of The Pittsburgh Leader newspaper. In 1913, the couple sailed for Europe.

A 1906 poster of Lillian Russell. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy of the Heinz History Center)

The gown that Lillian Russell gave to a Pittsburgh woman who admired it. (Courtesy of the Heinz History Center)

Pittsburgh native Gene Kelly, an actor, dancer, choreographer and movie director, is featured in a gallery devoted to performers. On exhibit is a tan and blue plaid suit he wore in the 1951 movie “Singin’ in the Rain.” Complete with knickers and a jaunty cap, it stands in front of a black-and-white publicity still showing Kelly surrounded by umbrellas.

A color halftone poster of Gene Kelly in "Ein Amerikaner in Paris," ("An American in Paris") by Heinz Bonné. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Gene Kelly)

All of the Andys are here. An oil portrait of Andrew Mellon portrays the austere banker and philanthropist with white hair and mustache. He exudes an air of pained gravitas that came from starting a bank, financing wildly successful businesses, an unhappy marriage and serving three U.S. presidents.

In 1936, Mellon donated part of his art collection, including 30 portraits, to establish the National Gallery of Art. A pen and ink drawing of Mellon done in 1936 shows a gaunt ghost. By then, he was on trial for federal tax fraud in Pittsburgh.

Artist Albert Levering caricatures Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist, as a red-faced Scotsman dressed in a green kilt and throwing gold coins into the air while currency drips from his clothes. Hans Namuth’s photograph of Andy Warhol is one of the best pictures ever made of the Pop artist.

Painting of a coal miner, 1978, by Birney Lettick. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine)

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wished to be known for his philanthropy, but cut steel worker wages and permitted the use of violence to quash the Homestead Strike in 1892. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

A daguerreotype shows Martin Robinson Delany, the dignified medical doctor, standing in his blue military uniform. Delany was the highest ranking Black general during the Civil War.

Benjamin Tucker Tanner, an influential Black minister, barber, newspaper founder and missionary, is shown dressed in a suit and seated, his dog at his feet. Next to him is a portrait of his son, Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first Black American artist to enjoy international acclaim.

A version of the portrait of Martin Robinson Delany, the highest ranking Black general during the Civil War (a major in the 104th U.S. Colored Troops). Delany was also one of the first Black students enrolled in Harvard Medical School. The exhibit version of the portrait will be in color. (Heinz History Center)

The exhibition is a visual literacy test of historic figures. Who do you recognize? Whose hairdo, mustache or outfit is most becoming? More importantly, who is missing?

For one, there’s no portrait of Crystal Eastman, the progressive reformer whose exhaustive survey of unsafe workplace conditions in the Pittsburgh of 1907 and 1908 led to the nation’s first labor law. Oxford University Press just published an excellent biography of her, so the reformer is ready for her visual due.

The same is true for Pittsburgh’s own Hidden Figure, Elayne Arrington, an aeronautical engineer and the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson school of engineering. Ms. Arrington contributed to space exploration at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio and is among the first 24 Black women in America to earn a doctorate in mathematics.

NFL quarterback Joe Namath, by Jack Davis, 1972. Namath led the New York Jets to victory in the 1969 Super Bowl over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine)

Golf legend Arnold Palmer, painted by Paul Callan Vincent Burns in 1979. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution; gift of the family of Paul C. Burns)

In one of the last galleries, you can sit in a chair to have your own portrait taken. Or, for those seeking a spot on “America’s Got Talent,” stand in front of a stunning silver microphone and get ready for your close-up.

The museum, at 1212 Smallman St. in the Strip, opened Wednesday. It requires visitors to wear masks and use hand sanitizer stations, and it is regularly disinfecting high-touch areas.

For more information about the exhibition, visit https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/exhibits/smithsonians-portraits-of-pittsburgh.

By Marylynne Pitz at mpitz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter: @mpitzpg


Writing: Marylynne Pitz

Design and Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman



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