Just as buildings like the Capitol and the White House have become symbols of American democracy, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., has become a symbol of America's dedication to the preservation of art and the love of its many forms. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) houses the nation's first collection of American art, 1 of the largest and most inclusive collections in the world. With over 7,000 artists represented here, it can be a bit overwhelming. Here are five must-see pieces that can serve as the backbone to your next visit.
Electronic Superhighway, 1995
Nam June Paik
This piece embodies the uniquely wonderful world of American art. Nam June Paik was born in Korea in 1932, graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1956 and then studied art in Europe. During his childhood in Korea, Paik was surrounded by American television and film, which are the inspiration behind the piece, "Electronic Superhighway."
When Paik moved to America in 1964, he started incorporating all things American into his art. "Electronic Superhighway" maps out America with clips of movies, musicals and TV shows. There are 336 TV sets arranged into the shape of the United States with each set televising a piece of video Americana.
"The Wizard of Oz" appears on a set near Kansas, "Meet me in St. Louis" in Missouri, and "Oklahoma" in -- you guessed it -- Oklahoma.
Patrons of Paik's art can also become part of the action; a handheld video camera captures visitors' images creating art with the simple act of recording a smile, a laugh, or a wave.
An Interlude, 1907
William Sergeant Kendall
"An Interlude" is by American artist William Sergeant Kendall. The piece portrays his wife Margaret kissing their 5-year-old daughter Beatrice. The title suggests a quiet moment before something happens, and it is possible that this piece foreshadowed the disintegration of Kendall's family.
Kendall developed a fascination with his friend's 13-year-old niece Christine when he became her art teacher. In 1907, when Kendall painted "An Interlude," he and Christine had become lovers; she was 16 and he was 38.
In the painting, truth lingers in the eyes of young Beatrice. Her expression seems to suggest recognition, a window into the reality of her familial life. In 1921, when Kendall was 53, he abandoned the family pictured here and married Christine, 32.
Visit this stunning piece and decide for yourself if it truly suggests Kendall's troubled family life, or if the painting exists simply as a beautiful portrait.
Adoration of St. Joan of Arc, 1895
J. William Fosdick
In the "Adoration of St. Joan of Arc," William J. Fosdick debuted a revolutionary piece of woodwork. The piece is constructed entirely of wood -- the lines, grooves and other details were painstakingly burned in. Fosdick created different textures for Joan's cloak, hair, wings and armor.
The story of Joan of Arc is notorious, and at the turn of the 20th century, she was a popular symbol in American culture. Mark Twain wrote about her in 1896, Anna Hyatt Huntington created a sculpture of the martyr for Riverside Drive in New York, and George Bernard Shaw's famous play about her debuted on Broadway in 1923. She was a figure from the romantic past and an emblem of the modern world's "new woman."
In Fosdick's depiction, Joan of Arc is pictured after her execution, ascending to heaven. Her soldiers hold the battle standards she herself had carried. Her final words are also included in the carving, "My last wishes and thoughts are of my god, my country, and my king."
William H. Johnson
"Café" by William H. Johnson embodies the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. African-American artists like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were all creating revolutionary pieces of art about life in New York City.
Johnson, desperate for artistic inspiration and opportunity, went to New York for art school after growing up in Florence, SC. The energy of this time is wonderfully captured in "Café." Above the table, a couple coolly takes in the café scene; below, a tangle of legs and limbs hints at the erotic energy of a night on the town.
Johnson spent many years traveling the country and painting African-American communities. Sadly his success was short-lived. At the age of 46, he experienced a mental breakdown. In 1947 Johnson admitted himself to an insane asylum, where he spent the next 23 years of his life. He would never paint another piece.
Adams Memorial, 1885
The "Adams Memorial," commemorating Marian "Clover" Adams, is a sculpture dedicated to Henry Adams' tragic loss. Marian committed suicide in 1885 ; she had long suffered with depression, and it is believed that the death of her father was the impetus for her suicide.
Henry Adams was devastated by his wife's death. He commissioned the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, well known for his memorial to Abraham Lincoln, to create a monument to Marian that expressed the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state beyond both joy and sorrow.
Saint-Gaudens' ambiguous figure suggests the search for new insights into the mysteries of life and death. The shrouded being is neither male nor female, neither triumphant nor downcast -- a perfect representation of the ineffability of death.