George Washington: A national treasure

Though hanging in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery since its opening in 1968, the 'Lansdowne portrait' ofGeorge Washington -probably the most famous painting of the president- only became the property of the Gallery last March. The portrait is now on its first national tour, which will last until the fall of 2004. But if you can't get to see it in person, you can still explore the work in detail at George Washington: A National Treasure.

Launched in tandem with the touring exhibition, A National Treasure uses a Flash 5 interactive to look at a dozen specific areas of the painting, interpreting the portrait through Symbolic, Biographic, and Artistic "filters." (A non-Flash version of the tour is also available.) Highlighted elements include not only such obvious variables as the subject's pose and gestures, but also objects that may otherwise be considered mere background props - a table leg, a few books, a rainbow visible through a window.

All three filters examine the same points of interest - the Symbolic filter illustrates each elements' role in making an allegorical statement, Biographic relates the same elements to events in Washington's life, and Artistic explores the painter's methods - and points out such features as the president's non-matching coat sleeves. (I can't look at that right arm now without thinking it just looks wrong.) The various elements are indicated by hotspots which appear when the browser's pointer is placed over the portrait, and each component is highlighted and magnified as the pointer touches the object itself. A mouse click on any of these hotspots leads to specific facts about the chosen element, and a few paragraphs of additional context. The interactive's interface is designed so that visitors can either tour each filter in succession, or view a specific element through all three filters before moving on to the next.

The admirable speed with which the Flash animation reacts to input can lead to some minor frustrations - so try to keep your browser's pointer in a 'neutral space' on the portrait until you know where you want to go. If you do stray over a hotspot even momentarily, the image will start to highlight and magnify the area it thinks you've chosen. If you move your pointer away in an attempt to return to the original image, you could well land on another hotspot, since the guide points have faded out of sight...and the circle begins again. (The floor near the president's feet seems a fairly safe 'staging area' - though if you actually touch his feet, "Clothing" will begin to load.)

After touring the portrait, a return to the exhibition's home page also offers an -appropriately presidential- Town Hall, where visitors can add their reactions and opinions to the half-dozen topics posted, a Kids section, with Family and Teacher guides, The Patriot Papers, which will follow the exhibition as it tours the country, a Chronology of the president's life, and a kid's-own version of the interactive portrait - where young detectives use an interactive 'spyglass' to uncover missing elements of the painting.

The only difficulty I encountered was text that seemed to regularly flow into the portrait area, occasionally being cut off in mid-word - and since there was no way to re-size the Flash interactive's window, I wasn't able to make room for both image and text. (This may be a result of my font settings, or something not agreeing with my Mac browser. In any case, I was able to read any obscured text with a quick jump to the HTML version of the tour.)

As a photographer, I always envied the painter's ability to add subtext by simply dropping in some object that was never actually there. A National Treasure shows that in many if not most great paintings, there is a good deal more than meets the literal eye.

George Washington: A National Treasure can be found at http://georgewashington.si.edu/index.html.

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