Truman Presidential Museum and Library

Independence, MO



Portraits of the Presidents from the National Portrait Gallery


The most famous collection in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery -- the presidential portraits -- arrived at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, Missouri, on March 1, 2001. "Portraits of the Presidents from the National Portrait Gallery" -- sixty-one paintings, sculptures, photographs and other renderings, depicting 42 U.S. presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton -- is touring the country for the first time, and will travel to several presidential libraries and museums. It will be in Independence, Missouri, until May 20, 2001. (left: George Peter Alexander Healy , Abraham Lincoln, 1887, oil on canvas, NPG.65.50; right: Mather Brown, Thomas Jefferson, 1786, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Bequest of Charles Francis Adams, NPG.99.66)

The traveling exhibition is part of "Portrait of a Nation," an initiative which will have four major National Portrait Gallery exhibitions going on national and international tours for the next four years. (The National Portrait Gallery is closed to the public until 2004 due to major renovation work being done to the landmark Old Patent Office Building, in Washington. D.C. where it is located.) (left: Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, c. 1853, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.75.4; right: George Tamas, John F. Kennedy, 1961, photograph, gelatin silver print, NPG.94.189)

Selected from among the museum's 1,200 presidential likenesses, "Portraits of the Presidents" includes such richly diverse images as: Rembrandt Peale's "porthole" portrait of George Washington; a likeness of Thomas Jefferson done for John Adams as a token of their friendship; an in situ depiction of Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War, that was used to promote his presidential candidacy; one of the last photographic images of Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner; photographer George Tames's famous silhouetted image of John Kennedy in the Oval Office; and Chuck Close's oversized iris print of Bill Clinton. (left: Douglas Chandor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1945, oil on canvas, NPG.58.49)

"Many of these portraits -- Jefferson as minister to France, FDR at the end of his presidency -- are linked to historical moments," says exhibition curator and National Portrait Gallery senior historian Frederick Voss. "One of the main things I hope visitors gain from this exhibition is a lively sense of these moments and the personalities behind them." (right: Alexander Gardner, Abraham Lincoln, 1865, photograph, albumen silver print, NPG. 81.M1)

"Portraits of the Presidents" also sheds light on the traditions and challenges of presidential portraiture. George Washington was so inundated by requests to paint him that he came to view artists the way today's movie stars view the paparazzi. Andrew Jackson, facing the same problem, invited his favorite portrait artist to live in the White House. And Norman Rockwell frankly admitted that he flattered Nixon's "troublesomely elusive face" because he wanted the portrait to go "in a positive direction." (left: Norman Rockwell, Richard Milhous Nixon, 1968, oil on canvas, NPG.72.2; right: Ronald N. Sherr, George Herbert Walker Bush, 1994-95, oil on canvas, NPG.95.120)



Essay from exhibition catalogue "Portraits of the Presidents" titled "Presidential Likenesses at the National Portrait Gallery"

by Frederick S. Voss


Just as the presidency is the focal point of American politics, presidential likenesses occupy a place of eminence in the American portrait tradition. Replications of presidential images are to be found everywhere, from our coined and paper currencies to advertisements to public classrooms. It would not, in fact, be an overstatement to say that familiarity with at least certain presidential likenesses -- most notably Washington's and Lincoln's -- is one of the few aspects of our heterogeneous cultural heritage that most Americans have in common almost from toddlerhood onward. Moreover, when a retired President returns to Washington for the unveiling of his portrait at the White House (as has become the custom in recent years), it may be just about the only modern-day portrait unveiling that is apt to receive coast-to-coast media coverage. Finally, presidential likenesses are sometimes even capable of inspiring public controversy. During the first half of the nineteenth century, for example, debates would periodically break out in print over which likeness of George Washington was the most authentic, and in the early 1960s, Pietro Annigoni's somber, somewhat haggard-looking portrayal of John F. Kennedy for Time's Man of the Year cover generated an unprecedented onslaught of indignant letters from readers. Any artist, wrote one of the more irate, who dared to paint the country's handsome President that way deserved to be "boiled in his own oils."

Against this backdrop of abiding, and sometimes vitriolic, interest in presidential images, it should come as no surprise that among the National Portrait Gallery's richest troves are its many images of the individuals who have occupied the White House. In addition to the more predictable painted and sculpted likenesses, the museum's presidential collections contain photographs, prints, drawings, original Time magazine covers, and caricatures. Among its most recent acquisitions is a rare group of Indian peace medals -- all bearing profile likenesses of Presidents -- that were used from Washington's administration into the late nineteenth century as tokens of friendship in the government's dealings with Native American tribes. Today the Gallery's presidential collections include more than 1200 pieces and are constantly growing.

To search for a common strand or overarching theme that runs throughout the Gallery's presidential portraiture is very nearly an exercise in futility. But the operative phrase here is "very nearly." For there is one verity that applies to all: Viewed in its totality, the assemblage of images is above all eclectic. The Gallery's more than two hundred years' worth of images are as widely varying as the backgrounds and personalities of the individuals they depict and as the diverse democracy that elects them to office.

Aesthetically speaking, some of the likenesses represent the best and most sophisticated portraiture of a given era. The most noteworthy case is perhaps Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portrait of George Washington [SEE PAGE 6]. Probably the best-known image of a President ever painted, the picture has a fleshlike vitality that, despite its incomplete state, ranks it among the finest works by one of the most skilled artists of the early Republic. Yet 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 invested Tyler's face and one visible hand with a palpability that is little short of extraordinary. Finally, there is the portrait of Grover Cleveland by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, where the loose brushwork coalesces with a seemingly spontaneous quality of pose and natural lighting to make it a vibrant expression of the impressionistic portraiture that became the height of fashion in the last years of the nineteenth century [SEE PAGE 84].

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 the mediocre Ralph E. W. Earl, who actually moved into the White House when Jackson became President. Earl's portraits tended to be flat, and more wooden than lifelike [SEE PAGE 38]. Had it not been for his warm relationship with Jackson and all the patronage that came with it, the prosperity of his portrait painting business doubtless would have been substantially less. Nevertheless, 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 Jacksonian America.

Another President who did not worry about the talents of his portraitist was John Quincy Adams. In his old age, as a member of the House of Representatives, it almost seemed as if he was willing to sit for just about any artist who asked him, and given his fame as the House's "Old Man Eloquent," a good many did.

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 [SEE PAGE 34]· Later to become much celebrated for his portrayals of life on the trans-Mississippi frontier, Bingham proved his subject wrong on both counts. The resulting picture is a compelling testament to the subject's stony New England tenaciousness, and posterity is grateful indeed for Adams's willingness to pose for a painter in whom he had such 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 roué who. . . must have sulphuric acid in his tea." And that is the self same crusty old man that Bingham captured on his canvas.

When we think of presidential portraiture, the image that most readily comes 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, and 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 United States Capitol at his back [SEE PAGE 123]. Sometimes, however, these more formal likenesses can be surprisingly intimate, and in George Bush's portrait by Ron Sherr [SEE PAGE I36], 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 the one that Norman Rockwell painted of Richard Nixon shortly after the 1968 election [SEE PAGE 125]. In scale, the picture is small and looks all the more so when seen in relation to the much larger presidential likenesses that normally surround it when it is on view in the Gallery. Nevertheless, it manages to hold its own admirably in that more imposing company, with its relaxed informality and affable warmth.

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, the prototype for which the artist conceived in 1868 [SEE PAGE 64]. That prototype was intended to serve merely as a template for the Lincoln figure in The Peacemakers, a much larger picture depicting Lincoln in conference with key military advisers. But Healy was quick to sense that his template was quite a good picture in its own right, and he eventually made three copies of it, including the one now at the Portrait Gallery. Another likeness initially meant only to be a study is Douglas Chandor's portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt [SEE PAGE 110], which was done in preparation for a substantial, never-realized tableau depicting Roosevelt with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta. As most studies do, the picture looks obviously unfinished. Still, when combined with the hand studies and the sketch in the canvas's lower portion, the central likeness has the weight of a good finished portrait, and one cannot help but think that a greater state of completion might have diminished its impact.

Caricature is a type of likeness that no self-respecting collection of presidential portraiture can afford to be without. After all, who has been more caricatured in the annals of American satire than the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Among the museum's most memorable examples of that brand of portraiture is a drawing by the famed nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, depicting his favorite White House target, Andrew Johnson, as a mean-spirited "King Andy I" [SEE PAGE 70]. Another caricature worth noting is a drawing of Calvin Coolidge by Miguel Covarrubias. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this acerbic portrayal of the ascetic, taciturn "Silent Cal" is how closely it parallels a description of Coolidge by a Harvard professor. Coolidge, the professor observed, was "a small, hatchet-faced, colorless man, with a tight-shut, thin-lipped mouth; very chary of words, but with a gleam of understanding in his pretty keen eye." Covarrubias was never privy to that comment; yet to look at his interpretation of Coolidge, it is almost as if the good professor had stood over the drawing board directing the artist's pen.

Formal presidential portraiture by and large falls into conservative stylistic patterns, and good, bad, or indifferent, a portrait of a President rarely reflects the avant-garde trends in the art world. The reason for this is simple: Like presidential politics, presidential portraiture tends to cater to mainstream tastes, which by definition shy away from adventurous extremes. But there have been exceptions, and one of the most memorable occurred in 1962. Just after Christmas that year, armed with a commission made on behalf of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, artist Elaine de Kooning arrived at the family home of John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach, Florida. Closely identified with Abstract Expressionism, she was soon bringing to bear the influences of that modernist school of painting on Kennedy's features. As de Kooning worked, she became utterly fascinated with Kennedy's protean demeanor, so much so that she could not stop at making the one likeness for the Truman Library. Instead, she ended up using her drawings and oil sketches from the sittings to produce an extended series of portraits that number among the most innovative in presidential portraiture. No exception is the Portrait Gallery's full-length version from the series [SEE PAGE 120]. Although this likeness of Kennedy remains safely within the bounds of the realist tradition, its free brushwork and restless, almost chaotic spontaneity clearly link it to Abstract Expressionism, which, in its heavy emphasis on self-expression and eschewal of representational content, was in many respects 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 often the only way in which most Americans could know their country's chief executive. When, for example, President-elect Monroe sat for the Gallery's portrait of him by John Vanderlyn in late 1816 [SEE PAGE 32], the first order of business at the picture's completion was to have it translated into an engraved print for popular distribution. The advent of photography in 1839, however, began to challenge the primacy of the hand-crafted image, and 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 displaced even further in the twentieth century with the coming of movie newsreels and then television. Some ten years ago, a reporter writing on the presidential portrait tradition suggested that the formal likeness may have lost much of its relevance 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 hinged on the availability of a painted or sculpted portrait. Still, there is an enduring fascination with the traditional forms of portraiture and with the chemistry between artist and subject that goes into a painted or sculpted likeness. And if the enthusiastic visitor response over the years to the National Portrait Gallery's collection of presidential likenesses 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.

About the author...

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Frederick Voss did his undergraduate work at Lawrence University and holds a Master's degree in American history from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He has been with the National Portrait Gallery since 1971 and is currently the Gallery's Senior Historian and curator of its collection of original portraits done for the cover of Time. He has been responsible for many of the Gallery's special exhibitions and is the author of numerous publications -- many done in tandem with those exhibitions. Among his most recent books are: Ernest Hemingway: A Writer in His Time (1999); Majestic in Wrath: A Pictorial Life of Frederick Douglass (1995); Faces of TIME (1998).

Mr. Voss has been closely associated for many years with the National Portrait Gallery's presidential portraiture - one of the museum' s main attraction, and he was the curator for the Gallery's current exhibition of presidential portraiture that is traveling the across the country to seven different museums. He is also the author of the Gallery's recent book on presidential portraiture, Portraits of the Presidents.



"Portraits of the Presidents from the National Portrait Gallery" will be on view in presidential libraries and other cultural institutions across the country. The remaining itinerary is as follows:

Further resource: The Artful Presidency: Selections from the Archives of American Art

Essay reprinted with permission of the author and National Portrait Gallery.

Truman Presidential Museum & Library is located at 500 West U.S. Highway 24 (U.S. Highway 24 and Delaware Street), Independence, Missouri 64050-1798.

rev. 4/6/01, 4/28/01

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