Portraiture and Meaning: Studying 18th- and 19th-Century Painting at the Smithsonian


by Patrick Jackson

A summer internship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), funded by the Decorative Arts Trust, proved to be an illuminating experience centered on 18th- and 19th-century painting (figure 2). Working with Senior Curator Eleanor Harvey, I enjoyed the opportunity to uncover rich stories surrounding the fine arts.

My research centered around a portrait of the Onondaga Iroquois chief Ossahinta by the Syracuse, NY, painter Sanford Thayer (figure 1), a recent gift to the Museum. The picture’s potential for story-telling caught Eleanor’s interest. As I investigated the painting and its history, the likeness became an avenue to talk about the context of time and place, including the rituals of the Iroquois, the early industry of Syracuse, ante­bellum Polka culture in America, and much more.

My colleague and fellow Washington College graduate Bethany Palkovitz suggested I write down one thing I learned per day. Reflecting on that list, I realized my tremendous progress as a museum professional, from learning how to use the copy machine to the haiku-like exercise of label writing. From the practical to the theoretical, this internship gave me a true insight into how the museum field operates while reaffirming my desire to pursue this career path.

Patrick Jackson is a senior at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, and a 2019 Continuing Education Grant recipient.

Daily Learnings

An Excerpt of My Progress

  • Bethany told me to keep track of what I learn at the museum. Today, I learned to use the copy machine!
  • To earn an “A” in Eleanor’s “class,” you have to teach her something about art.
  • The endnotes of a book seem to be where about half of the research ends up.
  • Frames are way more interesting than I ever thought.
  • Museum patrons can take away very different things from an exhibition despite seeing the same works.
  • Death dates are not nearly as absolute as they appear to be.
  • The menagerie of off-site storage is a fascinating world.
  • Art conservators have much more artistic analysis in their work than I imagined.
  • Sitter identification in a portrait is not nearly as absolute as I had imagined.
  • Exhibition design can be an intense topic.
  • A lot more thought goes into book design than I thought, and it can cross into exhibition design as well.
  • Museum curators have strong opinions.
  • Syracuse had a history of rabblerousing salt miners, cursing parrots, and temperance coffeehouses… oh my.
  • Found the provenance of the Ossahinta portrait!
  • Exhibitions are very inter­departmental… Curatorial, Exhibitions, and Education all meeting just to discuss one room of an exhibit.
  • Even famous artists might not have known where they were born.


A print version of this article was published in The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, one of our most popular member benefits. Join today!


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