The Fine Art of the Presidential Portrait

May 14, 2020

The office of President of the United States is one of the most revered in the world today. Whoever sits behind the Resolute Desk finds themselves facing a tremendous challenge: somehow bringing people together even as the world faces circumstances unheard of, even in the times of their immediate predecessor.

 

How a president is presented to the people they govern often does more to inform their legacy than their accomplishments while in office. Every president from George Washington, who is shown in his official White House portrait taking a heroic pose with a ceremonial sword at his side and books at his feet, on has understood this. For presidents of the Founders’ generation the official portraits which now hang in the White House are character studies, with the focus on each man’s eyes and facial expressions. John Adams, for example, gazes to his left with his lips half-open, as though preparing to speak. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s eyes are fixed directly on the viewer while James Monroe, who presided over “The Era of Good Feelings” looks to the future of the country he helped to create (fun fact: Monroe's portrait also showcases the fifth president's fondness for Revolution-era fashion decades after it went out of style).

Some of their successors would follow in this same vein, while others would choose to blaze their own trails. Zachary Taylor, known as “Old Rough and Ready,” remains the only president to shun the traditional three-piece suit entirely in favor of his old military uniform, complete with ceremonial sword.

Yet it is with George Peter Alexander Healy’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln that the dynamics of the presidential portrait shift. Completed four years after Lincoln’s assassination, one can easily see the reverence with which the president’s memory was held. The lines etched into his face, the way he rests his chin in his hand and the mixture of weariness and resolve in his eyes show Abraham Lincoln as the salt of the earth savior of a divided nation. The shadows surrounding him speak equally to the great civil war through which he led his country and his presidency's abrupt, violent end.

Many of the artists who painted Lincoln’s successors would try with varying degrees of success to emulate Healy’s work. Though we get glimpses into the personality of each man, it is not until John Singer Sargent’s 1903 portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that we get as full a view of the man’s personality as we did with Healy’s Lincoln. The story goes that the artist spent days following the president around the White House, furiously sketching, until at last both had had enough. Sargent is said to have yelled at Roosevelt as they walked through the Executive Mansion that the president had no idea how to pose for a portrait, to which Roosevelt angrily whirled and, slamming one hand down on a nearby balustrade post, shouted back, “Don’t I?!” It is this pose which now graces the walls of the White House.

Following the end of World War II and America’s embrace of all things “modern,” the way in which U.S. presidents were portrayed suddenly changed. No longer was it enough to show the president as heroic and godlike; the president needed to come down to earth. This resulted in the president and artist creating something of a collaboration. The earliest and one of the most famous examples of this new approach is Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Far from the delicately-painted portraits which defined those images of his predecessors, the Kennedy portrait is a swirl of greens, yellows, whites and browns, and is perhaps the first presidential portrait in which the artist is as easily identifiable as the sitter.

Little by little the artists became more and more bold in inserting their own commentary on the administrations of the men they painted. When Nelson Shanks painted Bill Clinton’s portrait towards the end of Clinton’s presidency he was sure to insert a subtle shadow over the left hand side, an obvious reference to the Lewinsky scandal which would forever mar the forty-second president’s legacy. To drive the point home he even painted the shirt Clinton wore in the same shade as Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress. George W. Bush was portrayed by Robert A. Anderson as folksy and almost childlike. And Kehinde Wiley, in a portrait which in its short existence has already become an icon of American popular culture, portrays Barack Obama as a fairly traditional president whose background more than anything else is what sets him apart from previous chief executives.

How we remember our leaders says as much about our values as it does the leaders themselves. As George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking Broadway hit Hamilton, history has its eyes on them.

 

 

 

 

 

Image 1: Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Image 2: Samuel F. B. Morse, James Monroe, 1819. Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

Image 3: John Henry Bush, Zachary Taylor, 1848. Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

Image 4: George Peter Alexander Healy, Abraham Lincoln, 1869. image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

Image 5: John Singer Sargent, Theodore Roosevelt, 1903. Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

Image 6: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Thirty-fifth president (1961-1963) (license) Source: Cliff

Image 7: Obama in green (license) Source: Adam Fagan

 

References:

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/presidential-portraits

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-art-of-john-singer-sargent-in-the-white-house

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/presidential-portraits

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