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28 October, 2012
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Presidential Portraits
I suppose there isn't an artist amongst us that doesn't aspire to greatness. I'm no exception. Although I paint lots of other things, I consider myself first and foremost a portrait artist. Often a portrait artist is remembered not so much for how he or she paints, but whom. And one of the surest marks of a great portrait artist is to be asked to do a portrait of a great a President or something. As a registered Democrat, I keep hoping to get the call, but so far... I'd be in good company. The first official Presidential portrait of George Washington, was by Gilbert Stuart. Legend has it the stoic, full-length painted figure was saved by the heroic action of Dolly Madison in ordering it cut from its frame as she fled the Executive Mansion only hours before the British burned it in 1814. It's not one of his best but then Washington was not exactly the most attractive model to ever stand beyond the easel.

Rembrandt Peale painted Thomas Jefferson (very well I might add). Samuel F. B. Morse (before turning to telegraphy) did the face of President James Monroe. G.P.A. Healy did the most Presidents, seven in all, his first, John Quincy Adams done in the 1830s, his last, Abraham Lincoln, probably executed in the late 1860s from photographs after his assassination. Except for Lincoln's, they are an unexceptional lot. But then, so were the other Presidents who sat for him. Several other names stand out. The genre painter, Eastman Johnson painted Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. None other than John Singer Sargent painted Teddy Roosevelt, and William Merritt Chase painted a very lacklustre depiction of the very lacklustre James Buchanan. One of the most striking is of President Woodrow Wilson by the English artist, Sir William Orpen. Painted apparently very rapidly during one of Wilson's many trips abroad after the war, it has the fresh, spontaneous appeal of an unfinished oil sketch, and stands apart from the generally heavy, overburdened attempts of President painters before and since.

Quite apart from its dozens of Presidential portraits of varying merit, the White House is home to perhaps the greatest collection of American painting to be displayed under one roof in this country. From portraits of Native Americans painted by Charles Bird King to American Impressionist works by Maurice Prendergast and Childe Hassam, the collection would be the pride of any museum in America. There are works by Whistler, Cassatt, a seascape by Fitz Hugh Lane (I like to think he's a distant ancestor), also Asher B. Durand, Robert Henri, and Thomas Eakins. Although it seems ages ago now, I've toured the White House two or three times over the years, and in recalling the art, none made a greater impression on me than a portrait by Douglas Chandor. It wasn't a Presidential portrait, but that of one of our greatest First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt. It struck me as unique in that the upper two-thirds of the portrait is an engaging vignette of Mrs. Roosevelt, pencil in hand, seemingly about to make a notation in one of the many voluminous journals she was known to keep. The work is rendered on a toned canvas, the bottom third of which is filled with a number of painted, monochromatic sketches depicting the marvellously expressive hands and face of perhaps the greatest woman to ever rule the White House. Whenever I begin a painted portrait, this ideal never ceases to flash momentarily before my eyes.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 October 1999


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