A historical retrospective in two and three dimensions.
By Cynthia Close
Rhode Island-born artist Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) captured America’s first President, George Washington, in oil on canvas, in 1796, creating a precedent for the commissioning of official presidential portraiture that has endured to this day. Although Washington was reported to be a reluctant portrait-sitter, Stuart managed to paint his initial portrait from life. Known as The Lansdowne Portrait, it features a full-length figure of Washington, standing in an elaborate, European-inspired interior setting. Given the positive response and subsequent demand for an image of the president, the entrepreneurial Stuart made more than 100 versions of the original canvas for his eager patrons in America and Europe.
Many other artists, national and international, painted portraits of George Washington. Some of them were commissioned by his wife Martha, such as the youthful image portrayed in George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment.
THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Along with Stuart’s portraits of Washington, Peale’s interpretations are also on view at the National Portrait Gallery, the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. There are two sets of presidential portraits. One set is retained for public display at the White House, the other becomes part of the collection at the National Portrait Gallery, officially founded by Congress in 1962 under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery’s collection is broad, going beyond the presidents to include artists, politicians, scientists, inventors, activists and performers—those individuals who most contributed to forming the country’s national identity. The heart of the collection, however, is the exhibition “America’s Presidents.”
Although every president since Washington is represented, the National Portrait Gallery only started to directly commission work in the 1990s, beginning with George H.W. Bush who was painted in 1995 by Ronald Sherr (1952–), an artist known for his skillful portraits of American politicians and business people. Sherr’s historic double-portrait of father and son Presidents 41 and 43, hangs at the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station Texas. Since then, every president has had some say in the artist chosen to paint them and on how they ultimately would be presented.
THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
For nearly 100 years, those first presidential portraits, although painted by different artists, appeared to follow a prescribed, almost generic formula. The formal works featured unsmiling, subjects from John Adams (No. 2) to James Buchanan (No. 15) in a head-and-shoulders or 3⁄4 view, usually wearing a black suit-coat with a white, high collared shirt and black tie, set against a simple, dark or neutral umber background.
The portrait of Abraham Lincoln (No. 16) by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–94) shows the first major diversion in composition and style (opposite). Healy, a prominent Boston-born portrait painter, completed his portrait in 1887, 22 years after Lincoln’s assassination. It features a seated full figure of the president with his head resting thoughtfully on his bent right arm and hand, while his left arm seems poised to propel him up to a standing position.
Earlier, in 1860, Healy had the opportunity to do a painting of Lincoln from life, but the official, posthumous portrait had to be compiled from previous portraits of Lincoln. In the 1887 portrait, Healy has managed to capture something of the anxiety Lincoln must’ve felt as he tried to bridge a nation torn by civil war and slavery to
a country united under freedom for all, regardless of the color of their skin.
The seated, monumental sculpture of Lincoln, completed by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) for the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., however, has certainly surpassed the two-dimensional presidential portrait in popularity and national significance. This homage carved in marble has come to represent the concept of freedom for all Americans.
Interestingly, Lincoln was the first bearded president. Prior to 1861, all the presidents were clean shaven. For decades following Lincoln, every president sported a beard or—in the case of Grover Cleveland (No. 22 and 24), a mustache—with the exception of Andrew Johnson (No. 17), Lincoln’s former vice president. The fashion would swing back to a clean-shaven face at the beginning of the 20th century, and has continued to the present.
THE 20TH CENTURY
Woodrow Wilson (No. 28) was the first president to lead the nation following the devastating conflagration of World War I. The painting of Wilson (below) by Danish-born artist John Christen Johansen (1876–1964) was done in 1919, just a few months before Wilson had a stroke. While unfinished, this portrait seems fresh and more alive than most of the previous presidential portraits. Wilson’s straightforward gaze challenges the viewer to engage in a relationship—a very daring modernist approach that mirrors Wilson’s own bold ideas for rebuilding relationships between nations in the aftermath of war.
Like Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (No. 28) led the nation through years of crisis and war. His term started in the throes of the Great Depression and continued through an unprecedented third term, beginning in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. A fourth term ended with the President’s death, in April of 1945.
In March of that year, British-born American portrait painter Douglas Chandor (1897–1953) painted a preparatory sketch of Roosevelt (below) from life for a group portrait that would include Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Meant to memorialize the historic signing of the peace declaration at Yalta, the final group portrait was never completed because Stalin wouldn’t sit for the artist. He sent a photo for the artist to work from, which Chandor found unacceptable.
As with the Wilson portrait, this sketch on canvas is in many ways more revealing of the humanity of the president and of the artist’s process than the more polished finished works. The sketch includes several lovely studies of Roosevelt’s hands, which communicate some additional information about the man himself. Chandor’s very appealing 1931 painting of the previous president, Herbert Hoover (No. 31) capitalizes on a complex rendering of multiple light sources and includes a deft compositional placement of Hoover’s hands.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy (No. 35), in 1963, united Americans in a shared moment of grief not experienced since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. His presidency, though cut short, had an enormous impact on the country as it headed into some turbulent years. It was fitting, during the rise of Feminism, in the 1960s, that his portrait, created for the Truman Library, was the first to be painted by a female artist, the figurative expressionist Elaine de Kooning (1918– 89). It was the most important commission of the artist’s career.
De Kooning spent time with Kennedy in 1962 and 1963. His youthful energy inspired the artist to create hundreds of drawings and 23 finished paintings from those sessions. In an article for Art News in 1964, de Kooning reflected on her experience: “One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting,” she said. “However, working at top speed this way, I require absolute immobility of the sitter. This was impossible with President Kennedy, because of his extreme restlessness. He read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other—always in action at rest. So, I had to find a completely new approach.” Kennedy’s life force has been captured forever in de Kooning’s explosive strokes of blues and greens that dash across the canvas. In a starkly different style from de Kooning, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) one of America’s most famous artists and a well-loved illustrator, had a difficult time painting the disgraced 37th President, Richard Nixon, the only Commander- in-Chief to resign from office. Rockwell found that Nixon’s character eluded him, so he decided to paint a conservative, flattering portrait that he thought would at least please his subject.
THE 21ST CENTURY
In 2018, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled the commissioned painting of our 44th President, Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley (1977–). The first African American artist chosen to paint a presidential portrait, Wiley’s groundbreaking contemporary approach (page 00) was greeted with mixed enthusiasm by art critics and the general public. Responding to the demand to see the portrait in-person, the National Portrait Gallery arranged a national tour that started at the Art Institute of Chicago, in June 2021, and ended at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in October 2022.
The recent unveiling, in September 2022, of the official White House portrait of President Obama reminds us of the legacy of this long-standing tradition and the role that artists play in reflecting the zeitgeist of their time while capturing a likeness of the most prominent people in American politics. White House portraits, separate from the National Gallery, are privately funded, and maintained by the White House Historical Association. Former president Obama chose artist Robert McCurdy (1952–), who created a photorealistic, exquisitely detailed painting of the president wearing a black suit and gray tie, standing in the center of the canvas against a stark white background (opposite). “Presidents so often get airbrushed, they even take on a mythical status,” Obama said, according to the Washington Post, adding that “presidents and first ladies are human beings like every- one else.” McCurdy is known for painstaking detail in works that can take more than a year to complete. Upon close examination, even the weave of the cloth of the president’s suit can be seen.
Portraits have also been painted of presidential first ladies. Starting with Martha Washington, who was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, portraits of first ladies reveal more about fashion and style during the time they lived then do the paintings of their husbands.
Not all first ladies were wives. Some of them were relatives—daughters, nieces, daughters-in-law—who served as White House hostesses. These portraits were sometimes created decades after the subjects had served and were realized in a wide variety of media, including the nascent technology of photography, as with the black-and-white portrait by one of America’s most renowned early photographers, Mathew Brady (1822–96) of Julia Dent Grant (above), wife of the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant.
Former First Lady Michele Obama was captured on canvas (above) by Brooklyn-based artist Sharon Sprung (1953–), an instructor at the Art Students League of New York. Sprung seated Michele Obama on a formal red sofa. She appears elegant and alert, but relaxed in a softly draped cerulean blue gown.
In both examples, the first ladies are looking directly at the viewer, inviting us to return their gaze. In an uplifting remark during the unveiling at the White House the former first lady said, “What we’re look- ing at today—a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom—what we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.”
Cynthia Close (cynthiaclose.com) earned an MFA from Boston University and worked in various art-related roles before becoming a writer and editor.