Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The National Portrait Gallery: A Homogenous Art Experience

September 3, 2010 · 1 Comment

Today, we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which should be called the Rich White Male Portrait Gallery.  Generally all of the paintings were of white guys well into the Gallery’s 20th Century portions, with the exception of any female monarch.  Starting in the 1950’s or so, there were a few more token minorities and/or females throughout the remaining small portion of the museum.  In my opinion, this lack of diversity is completely unacceptable for a vastly multicultural city like London.  While wandering around the illogically designed museum (during which I frequently was forced to cross over my own path just to see the paintings in chronological order), I came across several paintings that caught my eye.  The most notable of these is a portrait of Oliver Cromwell that was painted by Robert Walker circa 1649.  As a political science major, I was drawn to this painting not so much for its artistic value (though it is a nice-looking painting) as for its sitter’s political accomplishments.


Cromwell is best known for serving as Lord Protector after the dissolution of the Monarchy at the end of the English Civil War.  Fighting for the Parliamentary forces, he played a large part in Britain becoming a republic as opposed to the monarchic structure it had used for hundreds of years.  This period of British history motivated several of the greatest philosophers of all time to venture into the world of politics, meanwhile formulating the basic ideas that have influenced every democratic government since.  The likes of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (both featured with Cromwell in the National Portrait Gallery), released these ideas in Leviathan and The Treatises of Government, respectively.  Though they are often thought of as very similar, Hobbes and Locke were on opposite sides of the Monarchy (Hobbes) v. Parliament (Locke) war.  Their ideas on the legitimacy of government (mostly related to the idea of social contract theory) serve as the cornerstone to the American system of government, which has in turn served as a template for governments all over the world.  It’s clear that the victory by Parliamentary forces, led by Mr. Cromwell, in the English Civil War set the stage for one of the largest global political changes in the world’s history, which is why both the period and the man are so interesting to me.

Categories: 2010 MatthewM

1 response so far ↓

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 4th 2010 at 18:18

    “. . . which should be called the Rich White Male Portrait Gallery. Generally all of the paintings were of white guys well into the Gallery’s 20th Century portions, with the exception of any female monarch”

    False, actually. Everyone keeps repeating this impression and I don’t understand it at all. There was a variety of men- yes, a fair number of royalty/monarchs, but also courtiers, statesmen/civil servants, doctors, lawyers, scientists, actors, soldiers/sailors, poets, etc- as well as a huge number of women (not just queens/princesses but actresses, art patrons, musicians, artists, writers, etc). I particularly remember, in the Stuart section, the portrait of a simple country girl who had given aid to Bonnie Prince Charlie when he was attempting to usurp the crown- he repaid her with a portrait, which she never would have been able to afford on her own. Mary Wollstonecraft also made an appearance- anyone who has read her “Vindication on the Rights of Women” cannot fairly call her anything but a RADICAL, way out of the mainstream.

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