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Portraits and Power Gallery (Gallery)

Portraits are one of the strongest parts of the People’s Collection and are found in almost every time period and culture throughout the NCMA. Portraiture is also a marker and gesture of power: who can and should have their portrait taken has been hotly debated and has changed significantly over centuries and millennia.

“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.”—Kehinde Wiley

In many countries portraits were used for generations to reinforce power over others (in the case of royalty) or to aspire to another sphere of society (as with the emerging middle class). The choice of artist, method of display, and clothing worn in one’s portrait were all regulated and scrutinized. Remnants of this system remain today, despite free-flowing images and information on the Internet. Regardless of whether images are presidential portraits, magazine covers, or Instagram selfies, the design, display, and artistry of portraiture are still being debated and analyzed.

Bringing together works from across the Museum’s collection, these galleries examine portraits as power objects: images that produce, signify, and preserve the power of their subjects and makers in diverse ways.

This first gallery focuses on portraits of and by women, who have historically been excluded from influencing or controlling their own images, often in favor of a male point of view. In giving independent recognition to images of and by women, this gallery gives new prominence and contexts to a subject long kept out of discussions of power.

Michele Frederick

Associate Curator of European Art and Provenance Research