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In this Case: Walt Whitman
April 25, 2008

In This Case is a series of periodic posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,300 pieces in fifty-seven cases.

Paul Wayland Bartlett's Walt Whitman

Paul Wayland Bartlett's Walt Whitman

April may be the cruelest month, if you believe T. S. Eliot. But it's  also National Poetry Month, which may bring down the cruelty level by a notch or two. For me, Walt Whitman is the gold standard of American poets. In the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, he takes the bronze. That is, there's a bronze medal on view modeled by beaux-arts sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett between 1887 and 1889.  (Bartlett is represented by thirty or so works of art at SAAM. In the Luce Center you can also see the bust version of his work Poetry; in another version her full-length figure graces the  facade of the New York Public Library.)

Whitman placed himself "out there" with the people, not shying away from experience or confrontation.  His poems in Leaves of Grass are almost boasts and billboards for a new type of American verse. His lines flow  with the grace of sermons. He immortalized President Lincoln with his great poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." He wasn't afraid  of rolling up his sleeves and, during the Civil War, tended to wounded and dying soldiers who were brought to the Patent Office Building when it was turned into a make-shift hospital. Whitman walked here. I try to remember that each time I walk through the museum.

In Bartlett's depiction one of Whitman's eyes appears larger than the other, as if he has given you an all-knowing wink. That feeling—as if he has just let you in on the biggest secret in the world—is exactly how I feel each time I revisit his poetry and find something new about the poet, the world, and ultimately, myself.

Posted by Howard on April 25, 2008 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center


I have an artistic urge to get some gold spray paint and spry this relief at just the right angle to allow the sun to add to the relief!

I enjoyed this post and feel inspired!

Thank you Darren. I'm delighted that the post inspired you. (just leave the spray paint at home when you visit the museum). Cheers!

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