Out of Many: Portraits from 1600 to 1900

Meet the individuals who shaped our nation.


Benjamin Lay (1758) by William Williams, Sr.Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Since its opening in 1968, the National Portrait Gallery has exhibited portraits of individuals who have significantly influenced U.S. history and culture. 

Louisa May Alcott (1967) by Cast after: Frank Edwin Elwell and Foundry: Roman Bronze Works, Inc.Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Out of Many: Portraits from 1600 to 1900 is a permanent exhibition in Washington, D.C., that includes portraits of Indigenous Americans, European colonists, clergymen, soldiers, writers, performers, scientists, and others who helped shape the country. 

Benjamin Franklin (c. 1785) by Joseph Siffred DuplessisSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The portraits featured in this online story are a sampling of the more than 180 objects in the exhibition and highlight both renowned and lesser-known figures.

Pocahontas (after 1616) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas, grew up in coastal Virginia among a confederacy of Algonquian-speaking Powhatan people.

In 1613, an English sea captain kidnapped and ransomed her for corn, guns, and prisoners. While in captivity, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and married the tobacco farmer John Rolfe. Their son, Thomas, was born in 1615. 

Pocahontas took ill and died nine months after arriving in England. Over the next 400 years, her brief life inspired tributes and legends, including a fictitious romance with John Smith.

James Smithson (1786) by James RobertsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

British scientist James Smithson laid the groundwork for the largest museum and research complex in the world, the Smithsonian Institution. 

He bequeathed most of his fortune “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” 

Sequoyah (c. 1830) by Henry InmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

For twelve years, Sequoyah, the son of a Cherokee woman and a fur trader from Virginia, worked to devise a method of writing for the Cherokee language. His syllabary ultimately included eighty-six symbols representing each of the language’s syllables.

The system made possible a rapid spread of literacy throughout the Cherokee Nation and the creation of written documents, including a constitution in 1827. The following year, the Cherokee Phoenix, a weekly bilingual newspaper, began publication in New Echota, Georgia. 

Ira Aldridge as Othello (c. 1830) by Henry Perronet BriggsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Ira Aldridge was the first American actor to achieve European renown. He began his career in New York City but left at seventeen to seek opportunities across the Atlantic. When he arrived in London in 1825, theater critics disparaged his performances in racist terms.       

Aldridge spent the next twenty-five years turning racial difference to his advantage, making Othello his signature role. Aldridge’s career reached its zenith during tours of Russia, France, and Poland in the 1850s and 1860s. 

Charlotte Saunders Cushman (1853) by William PageSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Billed as “the greatest living tragic actress” of the mid-nineteenth century, Charlotte Cushman excelled in portraying strong women, notably William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. After her successes in the U.S., she won acclaim in England playing male as well as female roles. 

Charlotte Cushman (1853) by Shakespeare Wood, 1827 - 1886Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

Cushman defied gender norms offstage, often dressing in the masculine style. Demanding equal pay with male actors, she managed her own career. While living in Rome, she also had long-term relationships with women in her expatriate circle, notably Emma Stebbins.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1844) by Unidentified Artist and Elisha Livermore HammondSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Frederick Douglass became the most influential African American of the nineteenth century by turning his life into a testimony on the evils of slavery and the redemptive power of freedom. 

After he escaped from bondage in 1838, Douglass emerged as an outspoken advocate for equality and abolition. Aware of the power of telling one’s own story, he spoke about his life, published three autobiographies, and founded the influential newspaper, The North Star

Charles Sumner (1874) by Edgar ParkerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Charles Sumner’s commitment to racial justice defined his legislative career. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1851, he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. During the Civil War, Sumner lobbied for emancipation and advocated opening the Union army to Black enlistment. 

Sumner introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1870. The measure was designed to ensure unfettered access, regardless of race, to “all the public conveyances.” When it was enacted in 1875, the key provision for public school integration had been stripped away by opponents.  

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1853) by Alanson FisherSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a novel intended to reveal slavery as “the essence of all abuse.” The result was Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.

The groundbreaking bestseller so altered attitudes toward slavery that it has been described as “one of the most successful feats of persuasion in American history.” 

Mary Cassatt (c. 1880-1884) by Edgar DegasSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt was one of the few women (and the only American) invited to join the circle of French artists known as the Impressionists. Frustrated by the limited art training available to her in Philadelphia, Cassatt settled in Paris in 1874. 

There, she said exposure to the work of Edgar Degas marked a “turning point in my artistic life.” At Degas’s request, she exhibited with the Impressionists in 1879. This portrait by Degas speaks to their vibrant artistic exchange.

Belva Ann Lockwood (1913) by Nellie Mathes HorneSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The attorney and social justice activist Belva Ann Lockwood was a trailblazer for women’s rights. As a teacher in the 1850s, she reduced gender inequality in education by implementing fitness and public speaking classes for girls. 

In 1879, after lobbying successfully for a congressional bill permitting women to argue before the Supreme Court, she became the first woman to do so. While campaigning for women’s right to vote, she ran twice for president (in 1884 and 1888) as the Equal Rights Party nominee. 

Chief Joseph (1878) by Cyrenius HallSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, also known as Chief Joseph, led a decades-long campaign to protect his people’s right to live on ancestral lands. The Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce, rejected the 1863 treaty that gave the federal government custody of virtually all the tribe’s Oregon homeland.

In 1877, military troops threatened to forcefully move the Nez Perce to a reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph led approximately 800 followers on a retreat toward Canada. Only thirty miles from the border, a siege by U.S. troops forced Chief Joseph’s surrender. 

For the next eight years, he was imprisoned. Following his release, Chief Joseph resumed diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Nez Perce.

Henry Clay and Helen Frick (c. 1910) by Edmund Charles TarbellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

To learn more about the individuals who have significantly influenced U.S. history and culture, visit the Out of Many permanent exhibition in Washington, D.C.

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