Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue at the National Portrait Gallery

By: CultureOwl
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06/10/2022
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Visual Arts
Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue at the National Portrait Gallery

Commemorating the Watershed Moment’s 50th

Anniversary, on View March 25–Sept. 5


The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will present “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue,” an exhibition exploring the 50th anniversary of the watershed moment through portraiture of the era. The exhibition will display 25 objects in various mediums spanning from fine art to pop culture to explore the relationship between portraiture, investigative journalism, activism and politics. “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue” is curated by the Portrait Gallery’s acting senior historian Kate Clarke Lemay and will be on view March 25 through Sept. 5 as part of the museum’s “One Life” series.


The June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex quickly escalated to a political and legal crisis that reached the highest levels of the United States government—including President Richard M. Nixon. The word “Watergate” came to mean the burglary itself, the subsequent cover-up of White House complicity and Nixon’s use of federal agencies to obstruct justice. The media’s relentless focus on Watergate culminated in the summer of 1974 with Nixon’s resignation from office. TIME magazine alone devoted more than 40 Watergate-related cover stories—and portraits—to the scandal, of which 12 portraits are included in the exhibition.


“The nation has been fascinated by Watergate for more than 50 years,” Lemay said. “The incident and its aftermath have evolved in the decades since into a uniquely American meme, buoyed by depictions in film and pop culture and regular reference in modern political discourse. ‘Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue’ examines the crisis and its contributors through the lenses of the artists and critics of its time.”


The roster of individuals involved on both sides of Watergate is long and winding, but intense media coverage and absorbing depictions by political cartoonists, illustrators and contemporary artists helped the public digest the events as they unfolded. This exhibition brings visitors face-to-face with the event’s cast of characters through portraits of various mediums from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. In addition to the former president, the exhibition presents portraits of those involved in the scandal and subsequent investigations including Mark Felt, Barry Goldwater, Katherine Graham, Barbara Jordan, John Mitchell and Rose Mary Woods. The exhibition also highlights the stories that unfolded on the periphery of the scandal, including that of Martha Mitchell—wife to then-Attorney General John Mitchell—who was kidnapped by order of her husband in the early days following the break-in.


“Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue” presents the work of artists Richard Avedon, Marisol Escobar, George Guisti and Dirck Halstead and illustrators and political cartoonists of the era, including Jack Davis, Patrick Oliphant and Edward Sorel. The exhibition continues the Portrait Gallery’s “One Life” series dedicated to the biography of a single figure, theme or moment in time since 2006.


Image Credit: “Watergate Breaks Wide Open” by Jack Davis, watercolor and ink on paperboard, 1973.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of TIME magazine.

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