spacer Martin Van Buren Martin Van Buren (1782-1862)
Eighth President (1837-1841)

Martin Van Buren's genius as a backroom strategist earned him the nickname of "Little Magician." But when he succeeded to the White House following his tenure as Andrew Jackson's Vice President, the gift for orchestration that he had enlisted to promote Jackson's cause proved of little avail in advancing his own. At the heart of the problem was an economic depression that persisted through most of his term. Roundly blamed for this misfortune, he became known as "Martin Van Ruin." Damaging him further was a taste for the finer things of life, which led critics to portray him as a perfumed dandy, indifferent to the country's current sufferings. Over the years, however, Van Buren's presidential reputation has improved, and today he is often lauded for his evenhanded foreign policy and landmark support for limiting the hours of workers on public projects.

This portrait was one of the first likenesses acquired for the White House under a congressional act of 1857 authorizing the purchase of presidential portraits. The artist named to do the work in the legislation was George P. A. Healy, one of mid-nineteenth-century America's most popular portraitists.

George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894)
Oil on canvas, 1864 from 1857 and 1858 sittings
Lent by the White House Collection

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Martin Van Buren Martin Van Buren

When Martin Van Buren sat for this daguerreotype in the mid-1850s, he was long retired from politics but nevertheless interested in the issues of the day. At this moment he was deeply disturbed with the South's push to extend slavery westward.

The maker of this image, Mathew Brady, became best known for the remarkable pictorial record that he and his field assistants made of the Civil War. In the 1850s, however, his reputation rested on his studio portraits, and his New York gallery was a much-visited site where people came to see his likenesses of America's current notables, including former President Van Buren.

Mathew Brady (1823-1896)
Daguerreotype, circa 1856
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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