National Portrait Gallery

Art, biography, history and identity collide in this podcast from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Join Director Kim Sajet as she chats with artists, historians, and thought leaders about the big and small ways that portraits shape our world.

Coming Soon: Portraits
Trailer 1 min 57 sec

All Episodes

Since it was founded over a long lunch in Boston in 1857, The Atlantic has featured presidents and poets, abolitionists and suffragists— men and women set on advancing The American Idea. This episode, Kim takes the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, on an ‘Atlantic alumni’ tour, stopping in front of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and a life-size painting of Mark Twain. Their conversation previews an upcoming collaboration between The Atlantic and the National Portrait Gallery that will look at the portraits of yesterday’s disruptors through the lens of today. See the portraits we discuss: Harriet Beecher Stowe Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Julia Ward Howe Mark Twain Martin Luther King Jr.

Aug 17

26 min 38 sec

After having to destroy her family pictures during the Cultural Revolution in China, artist Hung Liu treasures old photographs all the more. In fact, they’re foundational to her work. She has described her portraits like a memorial site for people forgotten to history-- comfort women, farm workers, refugees. As the Gallery launches a retrospective of her artwork, we trace Hung's life through some of the images she's collected and created, from her rendering of a resident alien card in which she renames herself 'Fortune Cookie,' to her painting commemorating the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown. See the images we discuss: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/Un-forgetting%20History

Jul 27

27 min 54 sec

These last few weeks brought jolting discoveries at residential schools in Canada— unmarked grave sites thought to contain the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children who went missing. The news was a visceral reminder that systemic racism and discrimination can literally bury the past. So we decided to revisit an episode about a woman who— unlike so many Indigenous people of her time— was celebrated by Colonial America, and actually had a portrait done: Pocahontas. Curator and author Paul Chaat Smith sifts through what we know, and what we think we know, about this iconic figure. See the portraits we discussed: Pocahontas, painting Pocahontas, engraving

Jul 13

24 min 18 sec

Dr. Ellen Stofan is a planetary geologist who has spent a lot of time looking up at the stars and thinking about life outside our planet. But in this episode, she talks with Kim about the portraits of some of her favorite earth dwellers. Among the trailblazers she highlights: a judge who fought for women's rights and a marine biologist who challenged the way we see ourselves in relation to the natural world. See the portraits: Rachel Carson and the Blue Marble Shot The Four Justices Althea Gibson

Jun 29

24 min 29 sec

The 1862 painting "Men of Progress" depicts a group of inventors credited with "altered the course of contemporary civilization.” Between them, they found more efficient ways to sew clothing, harvest crops and even send telegraph messages. In fact, the Smithsonian’s first secretary stands in the middle. But as cultural anthropologist Richard Kurin notes, many people have been left out of this tableau. To mark the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, we ask current Sec. Lonnie Bunch to give the painting an update. See the portraits: Men of Progress Solomon Brown James Smithson Frederick Douglass Eleanor Roosevelt Dorothy Height

Jun 15

27 min 23 sec

Phillis Wheatley was a literary superstar around the time of the American Revolutionary War— a distinction she notched up while writing in bondage. But she never wrote an account of her own experiences, and there are gaps in her story. The Gallery’s Ashleigh Coren and writer Honorée Jeffers ask us to re-imagine her life, drawn in poetry. See Wheatley’s portrait here.

Jun 1

22 min 52 sec

When the early photographer William Mumler developed his glass plates, he sometimes found a ghost had slipped into the picture. Was he a fraud? A medium? A grief counselor? Author and curator Peter Manseau explains how Mumler found himself at the crossroads of an emerging technology, and a wave of grief for those lost during the Civil War, and how his spirit photography eventually landed him in court. See the portraits we discuss: P.T. Barnum, by the Mathew Brady Studio ‘Cracked-Plate’ Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner Mary Todd Lincoln, by William Mumler

May 18

26 min 32 sec

Choreographer-in-Residence Dana Tai Soon Burgess traces his ‘hyphenated’ background— a journey that begins on a boat from Korea, disembarks at a Hawaiian pineapple plantation, meanders through Latino culture, and then arrives at a martial arts class in New Mexico… organized by Tibetan monks. Dana also discusses the hyphenated artists featured in two of his favorite portraits at the Gallery. Both were pioneers, both were outsiders, and both had their ‘American-ness’ challenged. See the portraits: Michio Ito Isamu Noguchi (“Tracings” duet music courtesy of Aaron Leitko.)

May 4

23 min 59 sec

Author Rick Atkinson brings to life two men who played outsized roles during the founding of the United States— one a rich slave trader, the other a pamphleteer who died penniless. They both stood for liberty and equality, but their stories illustrate how the democratic ideals written into the Declaration of Independence often clash with historical reality. See the portraits we discuss: Thomas Paine, by Laurent Dabos Henry Laurens, by John Singleton Copley John Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale

Apr 20

21 min 22 sec

We look at the portraits on our money— the little history lessons we carry around in our pockets. But with such a limited array of people featured, what do our banknotes say about us? First up, curator Ellen Feingold takes us on a tour of our money’s vibrant early designs, including images of children, beloved pets, and George Washington in a toga. Then former Treasurer Rosie Rios tells us how she discovered that women have been missing from our bills for more than a century, and how she campaigned to get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. See the images we discuss: Sanford Bank (Maine), $2 note Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis Martha Washington, copy after Gilbert Stuart Martha Washington, $1 silver certificate George Washington wearing a toga, National Bank (New York), $3 note George Washington, Lansdowne Portrait “History Instructing Youth,” $1 silver certificate Indépendence des États-Unis, copy after Jean Duplessi-Bertaux

Apr 6

27 min 8 sec

As the National Portrait Gallery works on its latest commission -- an official portrait of former President Donald Trump -- we take a spin through the ‘America’s Presidents’ exhibition. This episode draws back the curtain on earlier commissions that have drawn controversy and acclaim: a portrait of Bill Clinton with a shadow of scandal painted into it, and the Obama portraits that transformed the museum into a pilgrimage site. Director Kim Sajet also digs into the thorny question of what a presidential portrait is meant to convey, especially if the president in question has been impeached. Should it carry the glow of prestige, or the markers of personal failings? Is this gallery hallowed ground, or a place to question power? "If you're in the business of showing these paintings," says Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott, "you want to send people out a little hungry." Also featuring former deputy director Carolyn Carr. See the portraits we discuss here: President James Buchanan President Richard Nixon President George H. W. Bush President Bill Clinton President George W. Bush President Barack Obama

Mar 23

29 min 46 sec

Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, draws back the curtain on the artwork that tells the story of the United States— from a presidential portrait with a shadow of scandal hanging over it, to a $3 bill featuring George Washington in a toga. Tune in starting March 23 as Kim chats with historians, journalists and educators to reveal key American figures as the flawed, complex, and at times, unexpectedly relatable human beings they were.

Mar 9

2 min 11 sec

Operatic soprano Renée Fleming has been called ‘the people’s diva,’ performing at key moments in our nation’s story, like when she sang at ground zero after 9/11. For this special episode, she talks with Kim about how music can help us mourn, heal, and celebrate as we send off a particularly tough 2020 and nestle into the holidays. She also describes a few portraits that hold special meaning for her, because portraits are what we’re all about! See the portraits we discuss: Renée Fleming by Annie Leibovitz is here. Denyce Graves and Marc Mostovoy by Nelson Shanks is here. Leontyne Price by Bradley Phillips is here. Special thanks to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian National Board for making this podcast possible.

Dec 2020

21 min 25 sec

Born just two years after the abolition of slavery, Madam C.J. Walker built a business empire by marketing her homemade haircare formula to the black community. Along the way, she became the United States’ first female self-made millionaire. Our guests, Janine Sherman Barrois and Elle Johnson, helped bring Walker’s story to millions of viewers in the Netflix limited series, “Self Made.” They discuss Walker’s barrier-busting entrepreneurship, as well as her decision to use her own portrait as part of her brand. See her trademark photograph here: https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2008.20

Aug 2020

22 min 44 sec

We look at a black and white photograph that encapsulates a very American story— about the magic that can happen when you throw together people from different backgrounds and languages and… beats. The concoction that resulted is known as Latin Boogaloo. Eduardo Díaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, explains how one of the genre’s pioneers, Joe Bataan, got his degree in ‘streetology’ and went on to establish himself as the King of Latin Soul. See the photo we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/joe-bataan

Jul 2020

16 min 8 sec

The sitter was rapper LL Cool J. The artist was Kehinde Wiley, who's made a name for himself by portraying African American men and women in regal poses taken from art history. In this episode, LL Cool J recounts what happened when they met, and why he turned to a 100-year-old masterpiece depicting the richest person in modern history-- John D. Rockefeller Sr.-- for his power pose. He also discusses how portraits can help build new paradigms in the face of systemic racism. Stepping in to complete the picture, art historian Richard Ormond draws a line from a gilded age of luxury and elegance to a celebration of hip hop royalty. See the paintings we discuss here: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/rockefeller-pose

Jul 2020

29 min 4 sec

As a portrait artist, Robert McCurdy has painted some of the most famous and visionary people of our time-- the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison. But first he tells them, "It's not about you." The goal, he says, is to create a photorealistic image with no expression and no implied past or future, so the viewer and the subject can simply encounter one another. The true subject, he says, is the gaze. See the portraits we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/robert-mccurdy-portraits

Jun 2020

19 min 26 sec

After 'walking away' from slavery, abolitionist Sojourner Truth chose her own name, told her own story at speaking engagements, and sued for her young son's freedom. (She won.) The Gallery’s senior historian, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, says there’s something else she took control of— her portrait. You can see the carte de visite we discuss here: https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.79.209

Jun 2020

20 min 25 sec

It commands attention among the more sober portraits in the Presidents’ gallery, interrupting a room of men in dark suits with an explosion of green and gold. Chief curator Brandon Fortune recounts the tragic backstory behind this standout portrait of President John F. Kennedy by one of the few women who gained a foothold in the abstract expressionist movement— Elaine de Kooning. You can see de Kooning’s remarkable painting on our website: https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.99.75

May 2020

22 min 1 sec

Ruben Salazar was one of the first Latinx journalists to rise through the ranks of a major U.S. newspaper. Initially, he was careful to avoid being pigeonholed as a reporter on minority issues, but eventually he became known for digging into stories about police brutality and racial profiling— subjects also championed by the Chicano Movement. Curator Taína Caragol takes us through his life, frame by frame, and explains why some call him a martyr. See the portraits we talk about on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/ruben-salazar

May 2020

13 min 5 sec

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and film director Kasi Lemmons love Harriet Tubman, but they weren't in love with her portrait as an older woman in a heavy dark dress. Then Hayden got a call. See the photographs we talk about here: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/harriet-tubman

Apr 2020

21 min 15 sec

In the first of our ‘social distancing’ episodes, educator Briana Zavadil White takes us to stand in front of one of her favorite paintings at the National Portrait Gallery. It commemorates a brutal boxing match that was fought 100 years ago, but Briana brings it alive… from the sound of the bell, to the smell of popcorn, to the sweltering heat. See the portraits discussed on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/home-gallery-dempsy-willard

Apr 2020

14 min 37 sec

Long before Coronavirus upended our lives, Will Rogers saw the United States through another difficult and divisive time. The good-humored cowboy is perhaps best remembered for his movies, but he was also a prolific social commentator who managed to cross divides with his comedic wit… and also advocated for those hardest hit by the Great Depression. Check out the portraits we discussed on our website! https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/will-rogers

Mar 2020

25 min 1 sec

Why was it so startling to find a photograph of Harriet Tubman as a young woman? Why did Elaine de Kooning stop painting after the assassination of John F. Kennedy? We offer a series of virtual visits to the National Portrait Gallery for all our listeners forced to hunker down during the coronavirus pandemic. Join museum director Kim Sajet as she chats with curators and educators about their favorite portraits and the remarkable stories behind the art, starting March 31.

Mar 2020

2 min 15 sec

Hugo Crosthwaite, winner of the 2019 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, traces his artistic influences to his parents' curio shop in Tijuana, where statues of Aztec gods co-existed with Bart Simpson. Fast-forward to his winning entry, and he walks us through the first scene of his stunning stop-motion drawing animation about a woman who crosses the border from Mexico into the United States. You can see Hugo’s video at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJcmmWaW0nY&feature=youtu.be Check out earlier episodes plus the images we discussed at our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts

Nov 2019

22 min 1 sec

Ann Shumard, the Gallery's senior curator of photographs, narrates the stories of Rose O'Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd-- Civil War spies whose images were circulated in a popular photographic format called a carte de visite. Check out the portraits we discussed in this episode on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/behind-enemy-lines

Oct 2019

22 min 47 sec

It wasn’t long after Cokie Roberts came on Portraits that we learned the sad news of her passing, on Sept. 17. We quickly realized we has a ton of great material from our interview with her on First Ladies that never made it into the final edition. So this episode we reprise some of those special moments from the cutting room floor— where her smarts, her compassion, and her moxie are on full display. Find our original interview with Cokie at our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts

Oct 2019

13 min 44 sec

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie Bunch says a portrait can restore humanity, as in the case of Henrietta Lacks. She's the woman whose 'immortal' cells were taken without her knowledge and then used to pioneer important medical advances. Bunch, a scholar of American history, also describes images of one of his favorite presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson. As a lawmaker, Johnson had a 20-year record of voting against civil rights. Then he became a force for racial justice. Check out the images we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/speaking-secretary

Sep 2019

24 min 51 sec

Classical vocalist Marian Anderson became a civil rights icon in 1939 when she sang before 75,000 spectators at the Lincoln Memorial — a concert organized after she was barred from singing at Constitution Hall because of her race. But curator Leslie Ureña wants people to know there’s much more to her story than a single performance.. including a pretty good pancake recipe. Check out the portraits we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/remembering-marian-anderson

Sep 2019

22 min 2 sec

Journalist Cokie Roberts laments the fact that Martha Washington’s portrait depicts her as an old lady. Perhaps if it had been painted sooner, when Washington was young and vivacious, we’d have an easier time remembering her as the trailblazing, politically engaged woman she was. Roberts describes four portraits of First Ladies, outlining their bold contributions and the challenges that come with the job. You can see the portraits we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/firsts

Aug 2019

23 min 37 sec

If the 1995 animated Disney film is your guide, Pocahontas was a free-spirited Native American heroine who sang to the wind. So why is she dressed like European royalty in her painting at the National Portrait Gallery? Curator and author Paul Chaat Smith separates out what we know and what we think we know about this iconic figure. Check out the portraits we discuss on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/pondering-pocahontas

Aug 2019

23 min 5 sec

Julie Packard is a leading ocean conservationist, so when the National Portrait Gallery approached her to sit for a portrait, she had one request: She wanted to work with an artist who could paint water. That artist, it turns out, is Hope Gangloff. Kim talks to both women on the day of the portrait's unveiling for a behind-the-scenes account of what it's like when the Gallery is your matchmaker. Check out Hope’s portrait of Julie on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/underwater

Jul 2019

20 min 27 sec

You might see her leaning against a building on the street, or sitting across from you on your morning commute, pad in hand. Or, you might not have noticed her at all. Wendy talks about her 'drawn journalism' -- sketches and snippets of conversation that convey little slices of life, and connect us to bigger stories in the news. Check out the illustrations we discussed on our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/on-beat

Jul 2019

23 min 29 sec

When author Sheryll Cashin looks at a photograph of Mildred Loving, she doesn't just see a woman who went to the Supreme Court to strike down a ban on interracial marriage. She sees a complicated person, struggling herself with questions of race and identity. Cashin puts Loving's life in historical and geographical context, and also discusses another of her favorite portraits in the Gallery. See the portraits we discussed with Sheryll at our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/loving

Jul 2019

22 min 55 sec

If you were a man with property in the 19th century, there's a good chance you sat for a portrait at some point. If you were an enslaved person, a Native American, or an immigrant, there's a good chance you did not. Jill Lepore addresses this lopsidedness, or asymmetry, of history as she shares her own efforts to excavate the stories of people overlooked in the official account. Sometimes this means tracking down a portrait. You can see the portraits we discussed with Jill at our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts/lepore

Jun 2019

21 min 19 sec

Art, biography, history and identity collide in this podcast from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, launching on June 18, 2019. Join Director Kim Sajet as she chats with artists, historians, and thought leaders about the big and small ways that portraits shape our world. Subscribe now! Find the portraits we discuss at our website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts

Jun 2019

1 min 57 sec