spacer Essay



To search for a common strand or overarching theme in the National Portrait Gallery's collection of painted, drawn, sculpted, and photographic presidential portraiture is very nearly an exercise in futility. But the operative phrase is "very nearly": Viewed in its totality, the assemblage of images is, above all, eclectic. Indeed, the more than two centuries' worth of likenesses found in this trove of presidential portraiture are as widely varying as the personalities they depict and as diverse as the democracy that elected them to office.

Aesthetically, some of the likenesses represent the best and most sophisticated portraiture of their eras. One of the most compelling examples of this is Thomas Jefferson's portrait by Mather Brown. Painted in 1786 in London, during Jefferson's tenure as minister to France, the picture has an easy elegance that goes far in explaining the American-born Brown's quick rise as a portraitist of fashion in England. Another instance of painterly virtuosity is the Gallery's portrait of John Tyler, where artist George P. A. Healy's masterful rendering of skin tone invests Tyler's face and one visible hand with a palpability that is truly remarkable. Finally, there is Grover Cleveland's likeness by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, where the loose brushwork coalesces with a spontaneous quality of pose and natural lighting to make it an exceptionally fine example of the impressionistic portraiture fashionable in the last years of the nineteenth century.

Some Presidents, however, have not been concerned about enlisting the most able or fashionable artists of the day to paint their portraits. To meet the brisk demand for likenesses among his legions of admirers, Andrew Jackson, for instance, remained quite satisfied to rely on Ralph E. W. Earl, who actually moved into the White House when Jackson became President. Earl's portraits tend to be flat and more wooden than lifelike, and had it not been for his warm relationship with Jackson and all the patronage that came with it, his prosperity from painting portraits would have doubtless been substantially less than it was. Still, Earl's renderings of Jackson hold a certain charm for modern-day viewers, who can see in their awkward simplicity an evocative reflection of the rural culture that prevailed in so much of Jacksonian America.

Another President who did not worry about the talents of his portraitists was John Quincy Adams. In his old age, as a member of the House of Representatives, Adams seemed willing to pose for just about any artist who asked him, and in the last ten years of his life, he sat for his portrait on the average of three times a year.

One artist wanting to paint him was George Caleb Bingham. Though certain that this Missouri-born artist was unlikely to make "either a strong likeness or a fine picture," Adams consented to sit. Later to become much celebrated for his portrayals of life on the trans-Mississippi frontier, Bingham proved his subject wrong on both counts. The picture is a compelling testament to Adams's stony New England tenaciousness, and posterity is grateful for his willingness to sit for a painter in whom he had so little faith. Remarking on Adams's longevity, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "When they talk about his . . . nearness to the grave, he knows better, he is like one of those old cardinals, who quick as he is chosen Pope, throws away his crutches . . . and is as straight as a boy. He is an old rou who . . . must have sulphuric acid in his tea." That is the selfsame crusty old man whom Bingham recorded on canvas.

When we think of presidential portraiture, the image that most readily leaps to mind is a formally posed three-quarter or full-length composition. And with good reason many presidential portraits fit that description. Often the staged quality of these images seems almost calculated to keep the viewer at a psychological distance. That certainly is the case with the Portrait Gallery's likeness of Lyndon Johnson by Peter Hurd, where Johnson looks into the distance with the dramatically lit United States Capitol at his back. Sometimes, however, these more formal likenesses can be surprisingly intimate, and in George Bush's portrait by Ron Sherr, the potentially off-putting grandeur of the gilt-mirrored backdrop is offset by an easy intimacy that makes the picture eminently approachable.

But perhaps the museum's most intimate portrait of a President is Norman Rockwell's painting of Richard Nixon, done shortly after Nixon's 1968 election. Rockwell had trouble painting Nixon because, he said, his looks seemed to fall into that hard-to-capture category of "almost good-looking." Ultimately the artist, by his own admission, decided that if he was to err in this likeness it would be in the direction of good-looking. More noteworthy, however, than its intentionally flattering quality is the picture's relaxed informality. In scale, the portrait is small and looks all the more so when seen in relation to the much larger likenesses that normally surround it in the Gallery's presidential hall. Its engaging warmth, nevertheless, enables it to hold its own quite effectively in that imposing company.

Ironically, several of the Portrait Gallery's most satisfying presidential portraits originally were meant to serve only as preliminary studies for more ambitious pictures. One of them is George P. A. Healy's seated likeness of Abraham Lincoln. Healy conceived the prototype for this image mainly to serve as a template for the Lincoln figure in The Peacemakers, a much larger picture re-creating a conference that Lincoln had at the end of the Civil War with three of the Union's key military figures: Generals Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter. But the artist was quick to sense that his template made for quite a good picture in its own right, and he eventually made three replicas of it, including the one now at the Portrait Gallery and another that once belonged to Lincoln's son Robert and now hangs in the White House.

Another likeness initially meant only to be a study is the Gallery's portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which painter Douglas Chandor did in preparation for a substantial, never-realized tableau depicting Roosevelt with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Allied Yalta Conference in the final year of World War II. As most studies do, the picture looks obviously unfinished. Still, when combined with the hand sketches and the drawing in the lower left, mapping out the larger picture for which this likeness was intended, the central likeness carries as much weight as any good finished portrait. Indeed, one cannot help but think that a greater state of completion in the sketch might have diminished its impact. Certainly the artist came to think so, judging from the fact that he eventually adapted the picture's study-like qualities to a "finished" portrait of Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor (now in the collection of the White House).

Portraitists all work at different paces. Some can complete a good likeness in days; others take weeks; and some may require months. In the case of the Gallery's likeness of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, it was more than twenty years before the artist declared himself done. Around 1800, working largely from a portrait of Washington that he had done in 1796, Peale began his quest to create a Washington likeness that was not only accurate but also captured the full grandeur of his character and accomplishment. But in attempt after attempt, he found his finished product wanting. Finally, in 1823, he told himself that he would have just one more try at producing his perfect Washington, and at long last he came up with a portrait that met his expectations. Framed in stone to underscore the monumentality of the subject, the image became known as "Patriae Pater," and for many decades Peale did a good business in painting copies of it for both private collectors and public institutions.

Peale, however, had aspirations for this portrait that went well beyond his many commissions for replicating it. He had wanted it to become the primary likeness by which posterity would know Washington, but in that he would be disappointed. Instead, "Patriae Pater" was eventually eclipsed by another image in the Portrait Gallery's presidential collections Gilbert Stuart's unfinished likeness of Washington. It can be said without fear of contradiction that no portrait is more familiar to Americans than this picture, and it has been said many times that if George Washington came back to life and did not look like his Stuart portrait of 1796, he would be declared the impostor.

Formal presidential portraiture by and large falls into fairly conservative stylistic patterns, and good, bad, or indifferent, a portrait of a President, particularly one commissioned for a public place, almost never reflects the avant-garde trends in the art world. The reason for this is simple: Like presidential politics, presidential portraiture is meant to cater to mainstream tastes, which by definition tend to shy away from adventurous extremes. There are exceptions, however, and one of the most memorable occurred in 1962. Just after Christmas that year, thanks to a commission from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, artist Elaine de Kooning arrived at the family home of John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach, Florida, where she began bringing to bear the influences of Abstract Expressionism on his presidential face. So fascinated with Kennedy's protean features that she could not stop at the one likeness, she eventually did an extended series of portraits that number among the most innovative in presidential portraiture. Thus in the Portrait Gallery's full-length version from the series, the free brushwork and restless, almost chaotic spontaneity clearly link it to Abstract Expressionism, a school of modernism that in so many respects is the antithesis of the rules that guide conventional portraiture.

During the first five decades of the presidency, painted, sculpted, and drawn portraits (or prints derived from them) were the only way in which most Americans could know their country's Chief Executive. The advent of photography, however, changed all of that. By the eve of the Civil War, the photographic print was well on its way to displacing the older forms of portraiture as the main vehicle by which Presidents were known. They were even further displaced in the twentieth century with the coming of movie newsreels and, later, television. Then, some ten years ago, a reporter investigating the presidential portrait tradition suggested that the formal likeness may have lost its relevance altogether in an age inundated by instant photographic and video images that seemed to capture "the Chief Executive in virtually every mood and every activity." In many senses, that may be true. Certainly the day is long since past when the public's familiarity with a President's appearance hinged on the availability of a painted or sculpted portrait. Still, there is an enduring fascination with the more traditional forms of portraiture and with the chemistry between artist and subject that goes into a non-photographic likeness. And if the enthusiastic visitor response to the National Portrait Gallery's presidential collections is any gauge, modern-day Americans take an especially lively interest in seeing how that chemistry applies to their Presidents, whether they be George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or George Bush and William Clinton.


Frederick S. Voss, Senior Historian
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution

Catalog
Introduction