House Calls

For groups of adults unable to visit SAAM in person, House Calls brings knowledgeable museum docents to visit “your space” within the metro-Washington, DC, area.

In-Person House Calls

Through engaging presentations with vivid images that demonstrate broad themes in American art and craft, audiences recollect America’s history through the stories captured in our paintings, sculpture and craft works.

Our House Calls visits can be single sessions or multiple visits. Program lengths vary from 45–90 minutes. To schedule your House Call, complete and submit the House Calls Request form. All programs are free of charge. If you have questions, email AmericanArtMuseumTours@si.edu or call (202) 633-8550.

House Calls by Phone

A telephone version of House Calls is available for adults who have long- or short-term impaired mobility. This House Calls phone visit can be a one-time event or a multiple-visit series of up to four telephone visits. House Calls can range from one docent and one “visitor” to a ratio of one docent to four participants, each at his or her own telephone, perhaps in the same town, maybe in different states. Sets of 5–10 images of artworks are provided to each participant, delivered and returned by pre-paid mail. Program lengths are 30–45 minutes. Telephone participants may choose from these two themes.

Available House Calls Visit Themes

Click on a theme below to expand and see what each presentation includes.

From the ancient serenity of the Catskills to the panoramic vistas of the Rocky Mountains, from the majesty of Niagara Falls to the rugged beauty of Southwestern deserts, our country’s natural grandeur has provided constant artistic inspiration. Enjoy this exciting armchair tour of the beauty and variety of America's wild and cultivated landscapes!

View the same area in different time periods and media. Painter Alvan Fisher and photographer John Pfahl both depict the Niagara Falls area, but their works stand in sharp contrast. Fisher, a member of the Hudson River School, painted the majesty and roar of the falls, while Pfahl photographed contemporary industry there.

Changes of season and their manifestations in the landscape have inspired John Henry Twachtman, Rockwell Kent, Wolf Kahn, and Milton Avery. Norman Lewis uses landscape painting as a vehicle for social commentary.

Modern landscapes by Hans Hofmann and Alma Thomas  reflect changes in artistic expression and techniques in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, contemporary artists Mark Toby and David Hansen express concern for environmental degradation and loss. Geography, history, ecology, and art combine to present U.S. landscapes in their pristine majesty as well as their contemporary fragility.

Highlighting artists who have found inspiration in letters, “Art and Literature” encourages participants to examine and discuss images depicting the Bible, Shakespeare, opera, myths, poetry, and folklore. See beautiful reproductions and enrich your understanding of both disciplines through our expansive collection.

For example, in Hermia and Helena, Washington Allston painted two characters from Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The placement and composition of the two figures tell viewers about their close friendship. Such details reveal Allston's interpretation of—and renew our appreciation of—the well-known play.

In the early nineteenth century, Washington Irving's short stories created an "instant mythology" for a young nation. John Quidor drew upon and refined this folktale in his chilling painting The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane. James Fenimore Cooper's series of "Leatherstocking Tales" featured woodsman Natty Bumppo, a prototype of the frontier character that echoed in American mythology and art. In addition, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson profoundly influenced nineteenth-century landscape artists.
At the turn of the twentieth century, artists of the Ashcan School, like writers Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, were fascinated by urban life. Other artists and writers—such as Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Koch and Alex Katz—referred to each other in print and image.

In contemporary Latino culture, the two spheres continue to overlap, as seen in Angel Rodríguez-Díaz's portrait of author Sandra Cisneros. A popular Mexican American author, Cisneros is praised for her book The House on Mango Street and her collection of poems My Wicked Ways.

See art and literature from complementary angles in this exciting House Call!

This discussion highlights "food! glorious food!" From scenes of Kansas wheat fields to New York delicatessens, American painters celebrate the bounty of the good earth and our enjoyment of it. Artists guide participants full circle, from planting to harvesting, from the beauty of luscious fruits artfully arranged to the joy we share when gathering for meals. Join us in "Bon Appétit!," a feast for the eyes.

Our presentation begins in the fields. Pitting man against nature, Thomas Hart Benton painted a harvest mural for Kansas City that personifies forces of nature and creates a farming allegory.

In Achelous and Hercules, he casts a farmer as Hercules fighting the raging river god in the form of a bull to win the princess of abundance. In addition, seasons that regulate the farmer's life are the subjects of prints by Grant Wood. Men and women who have labored in the fields—depicted in Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett and Our Good Earth by John Steuart Curry—convey courage and dignity.

Between the field and the table, we stop in kitchens old and new, east and west. For example, artists from Ivan Albright to Peter Blume portrayed women peeling vegetables—a common activity before the introduction of packaged convenience foods. Childhood memories of a southwestern kitchen prompted Cocina Jaiteca, by Larry Yáñez, while Robert Cunningham captured the excitement of eating in downtown Brooklyn restaurants.

These and other artworks reflect the meanings we attach to food—from planting to plate—and recall time-honored rituals and traditions.

Can you imagine a life-size dress made entirely of glass? A basket in the shape of a wedding cake? A wall-sized sculpture of silk threads echoing a forest? A ceramic figure that is over eight feet high?

This discussion will introduce participants to our collection of contemporary American craft. Artists who are masters of their craft create works that may owe their roots to functionality but push the boundaries of what material and great skill can do. Presenters will cover examples of masterworks in clay, glass, wood, fiber, metal and mixed-media, discussing process, material, structure and technique.

American art tells the story of America. What we create as a culture illuminates our people and our history.

Early American portraits tell the story of those who created a new nation, while landscapes reveal changing tastes as our country expanded westward. Civil war-era images reveal the angst of a nation divided, which gilded age riches and American Impressionism reflect the tastes of a culture moving towards industrialization and a changing economy. Modernism and abstraction give way to art that addresses contemporary concerns and experiments with technology.

Sample the richness of our collection from 18th century painting to contemporary sculpture. This engaging discussion may include artists such as John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willen deKooning, Joan Mitchell, and many others whose work depicts the American spirit.

Experience scenes of everyday life in the United States—people taming the wilderness, migrating West, moving from farms to cities, working in industry, struggling through the Great Depression and World War II, fighting for civil rights reform, and enjoying leisure activities. “Life in America” brings these vivid dramas to your doorstep!

By comparing and contrasting artists’ interpretations of different eras, participants explore and discuss our shared past. For example, life in the West is shown at various periods. In the 1830s, before the invention of the camera, artist George Catlin set out to document the customs of Native American tribes in the Great Plains, an area that was then the “West.” Later western life is captured in California, when artists such as Charles Nahl and August Wenderoth depicted a mining camp after gold was discovered. These and other artworks provoke discussion about westward migration of U.S. citizens—its causes and cultural assumptions—and its effect on American Indians and the environment.

Moreover, Life in America illustrates the transition from farm life to a fast-paced urban society—replete with technical wonders such as skyscrapers, great bridges, and subways. The opulent Gilded Age contrasts with the trying years of the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl.

Multicultural viewpoints add complexity and richness to the contemporary period. As African Americans struggled for civil rights, Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin shared their singular perspectives, while other artists responded to the Chicano movement and efforts to preserve Native American culture.

In this presentation, enjoy stunning art reproductions and gain a new appreciation for the varied texture of American history and culture.

Portraying themselves in paint, print, or sculpture, artists share intimate insights into their personal lives. Presenters will share a wide variety of both traditional and unconventional self-portraits. To gain another perspective, participants will also compare photographs taken of the artists with their self-portraits. These images and activities help viewers explore fascinating issues of how we perceive ourselves and how others see us.

Examining several self-portraits, such as those by William H. Johnson, shows how an artist’s style and self-image evolve.

Helen Lundeberg includes four aspects of herself in her Double Portrait of the Artist in Time—as a child in a pose copied from a family snapshot, as a current self-portrait on the wall, as a shadow connecting child and adult images, and as a signature! For Latino artist Jesse Treviño, community and family are his reference points, so he includes himself in a group portrait.

The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face is Margo Humphrey's amalgam of image and word. In this lithograph, her face becomes a page upon which she narrates her life as an African American artist.

In sculpture, Robert Arneson and Man Ray provide twists on the self-portrait. Arneson's 35-Year Portrait uses the concept of the classical bust, but with a satirical note he creates it in glazed ceramic. In Autoportrait, Man Ray uses a bronze cast of his face, adds glasses, and contains the image in a wooden box.

Altogether, these and other self-portraits tell us about the creators and how self-concept can be defined and expressed in visual art.

House Calls by Phone Themes

Portraying themselves in paint, print, or sculpture, artists share intimate insights into their personal lives. Presenters will share a wide variety of both traditional and unconventional self-portraits. To gain another perspective, participants will also compare photographs taken of the artists with their self-portraits. These images and activities help viewers explore fascinating issues of how we perceive ourselves and how others see us.

The landscapes of human geography are often rural scenes, such as mountains, forests, rivers; sky is often in the background, like Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory (1882), or Samuel Colman’s Storm King on the Hudson (1866). The “land” exists, but the “scape” comes with human perspective.

View landscapes in different time periods and media. Two artists depict the Colorado mountains, but their works stand in sharp contrast. These images stimulate an in-depth conversation about a variety of American craft works from the SmithsonianAmerican Art Museum's collection, and the ideas they inspire in the viewer.