Artists at Work, Crativity at the Smithsonian


The Smithsonian has been the home to creative individuals since its founding in 1846. Scientific illustrators sketched insect wings, taxidermists prepared dioramas of life groups, expedition photographers captured the majestic geology of the American West, and designers arranged objects in exhibit displays.

Many of the Smithsonian Institution's jobs demand creativity and artistic skills. Natural history and other observational sciences require strong visual skills. Thus, many scientists who worked at the Smithsonian were painters, photographers, or craftsmen at home. Art curators used their aesthetics in their vocation and avocations. Whether they use their artistic skills at work or only in their free time, artists have played a significant role in the history of the Institution since its founding.

This exhibit first takes a look at four artists from years gone by and then takes you on a tour of the 1996 Staff Art Show sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution 150th Anniversary Community Committee which showcased the creative talents of our staff today.

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Doris Cochran holding frog

Doris Mable Cochran (1898-1968)

Doris M. Cochran holding a frog, c. 1930
Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

In her leisure hours, noted herpetologist Doris Cochran was a skilled fiber artist. She collected the fur shed by her many pet Persian and Angora cats, spun it into yarn, and wove blankets that she gave to friends and colleagues. Cochran began her career as an aide in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians in 1918, rising to the rank of curator in 1956. She used her artistic talents to draw scientific illustrations of the frogs she studied. Cochran was also a dauntless explorer, traveling through South America, Central America, and the West Indies. From her first field trip to Brazil in 1935, she returned with more than a ton and a half of specimens.
Painting of five Costa Rican Frogs by Doris Cochran, 1928
Painting of five Costa Rican
frogs by Doris Cochran, 1928
Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

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Portrait of William Henry Holmes by Nicholas R. Brewer

William Henry Holmes
Renaissance Man

Dr. William Henry Holmes, Nicholas R. Brewer, n.d.
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Mrs. Nicholas Webster

First hired by the Smithsonian in 1871, topographical illustrator William Henry Holmes was well known for paintings that were described as "orgies of pure color." His knowledge of geology, archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology made him a master in the scientific documentation of landscapes. His achievements included important publications on Indian cultures in prehistory and on Mayan civilization at Chichen Itza. In an impressive combination of art and science, Holmes was curator of anthropology for the Smithsonian (1897-1932) while also serving as curator and director of the emerging National Gallery of Art (1906-1932), now the National Museum of American Art.

Hains Point by William Henry Holmes, 1908
Autumn Tangle by William Henry Holmes, 1920
Hains Point
William Henry Holmes, 1908
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Mrs. Sophie Goode Tazewell
and Mrs. Salle Goode Jones
Autumn Tangle
William Henry Holmes, 1920
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution
Bequest of Mrs. Florence Deakins Becker

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Jacob Kainen with printing press

Jacob Kainen
(b. 1909)

Jacob Kainen with a printing press which is
on display in an exhibition on Graphic Arts
Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

Jacob Kainen trained as a painter at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and experimented with printmaking while employed in the graphics program of the Federal Art Project in the 1930's. Kainen came to the Smithsonian in 1942 and served as graphic arts curator through the 1960's. His friendships in the New York art world assisted his Smithsonian career, enabling him to enrich the exhibition program and enlarge the print collection. Kainen's important publications on the color woodcuts of John Baptist Jackson, the etchings of Canaletto, and the development of the halftone screen reflect the breadth of his technical and historical knowledge. He continued painting, drawing, and printmaking throughout his career, and today is an active artist at age 88.
M Street by Jacob Kainen, 1945
M Street by Jacob Kainen, 1945
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Jacob Kainen

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T. Dale Stewart in collection storage area

T. Dale Stewart

T. Dale Stewart in collection storage area
in the Natural History Museum, c. 1940
Photo by F.B.I.,Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

Physical anthropologist T. Dale Stewart was known as the "Head" Curator of the Department of Anthropology, not only because he was in charge, but also because of his special expertise in skulls. His interest in heads also extended to his hobby of portrait painting. Stewart, whose Smithsonian career began in 1924, was an authority on the skeletons of modern and prehistoric humans. He served as Director of the National Museum of Natural History, Acting Assistant Secretary for Science of the Smithsonian, forensic anthropologist for the FBI, and consultant with the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service. His artistic output included portraits of all the distinguished senior anthropologists at the Institution. Until recently, a gallery of his work existed in the back halls of the National Museum of Natural History.
T. Dale Stewart with one of the protraits he painted
Dr. T. Dale Stewart presenting
Dr. J. Lawrence Angel with an oil
portrait of him, 21 March 1975.
Courtesy Smithsonian Archives

Text by Pamela M. Henson, Web design by Jennifer Nichols of the Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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Exhibits on Smithsonian History || Institutional History Division