Saturday, September 18, 2010

National Portrait Gallery’s Art Sings on Walls of Color

by Jean Molesworth Kee

Living near Washington, D.C., I have the luxury of great galleries and museums at my doorstep. No stranger to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum before their renovation, I was not prepared for the stunning choice of paint colors used to bring new life to these pieces.

I’ve visited this space, praised by Walt Whitman as the “noblest of Washington buildings”, many times over the past 5 years, studying the new wall colors, painstakingly selected by professionals. Last week, I stepped inside with my new camera, determined to capture and share a bit of the breathtaking backdrop that now showcases the art and architecture there.

For the permanent collections, which are displayed chronologically, the Gallery chose historically correct colors for each time period and/or colors that were complementary to each piece.

Color is used to organize and connect these spaces and careful consideration has been given to the interplay of color between the rooms. In the Grand Hall, a soft neutral is used with subtle variations on walls, ceilings and trim. But look at the glimpses of color seen through doorways and beyond.

What is so fresh and edgy about these spaces, in all of their historical context and splendor, is a contemporary color twist. Here the eye is drawn to a freestanding feature wall – a bold plane of color. The color may be historically accurate but it is bold and sassy. Portraits of stodgy, gray WWII generals now hang against an acid yellow.

And a wasabi green.
And a Caribbean blue.

Anne Kenderdine, in an article for the Washington Post, used this example as a study in color theory. In a room filled with the oils of artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing, the walls are a soft dusky rose, the perfect complement to the green tones found in his paintings. Viewed from the doorway of this room, you glimpse across the hall where the reverse is used. Walls of deep saturated green complement the red tones of the floor and warm wood framing.

Other examples of the power of complementary color- here the eye is drawn to the shots of red and orange in these works hanging on a backdrop of blue.

Here, walls of deep chocolate brown add high contrast and drama to a white marble sculpture.

And here, an accent wall of peacock blue punctuates a large room of subtle gray tones.

My tour ended on the third floor of the American Art Museum in the wing that houses its contemporary works. Here walls are painted in subtle variations of white and gray with pops of color only in the art itself and furnishings.

Here are just a few of the Benjamin Moore paint colors used in this glorious renovation.

If you visit Washington, D.C., stop off at The National Portrait Gallery and The Smithsonian American Art Museum- two great museums, one incredible place.

About Jean: Jean Molesworth Kee is a certified architectural color consultant and founder of The Painted Room. She has consulted on numerous projects throughout the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. area over the past 10 years. She graduated of The International School of Colour and Design in Sydney.

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