Friday, June 1, 2012

Presidential Portraits

So they just unveiled the official White House portraits of former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. What do you think? I give them a resounding "meh." The painting hanging in the background of George's portrait is one of W's favorites. It actually depicts a horse thief from a short story but to W it apparently evokes a religious missionary of some sort, i.e. him. I think the artist brought a little of the classic Frederic Remington cowboy appeal from the painting into this portrait. Still though... meh.

Laura Bush by John Howard Sanden. 2012

George W. Bush by John Howard Sanden. 2012
A commenter on Shakesville wondered how the artist got through the painting without wretching-- I assume because of W's politics, as he's a pretty average looking dude. Hell, I'd love to paint the official portrait of George W. Bush. Facially, he's interesting (a cartoonist's dream). He's known for action and outdoorsiness (Sarah Vowell once called him, "America's gym teacher") which opens the field to all kinds of interesting poses and lighting. But most of all, to those who loathe his politics, he's like some sort of inscrutable Mona Lisa. Is he stupid and innocent, a naive Christian led by the nose by Rove? Or did he know exactly what he was doing? How much of him is authentic? He could be a great subject. Laura Bush has already proven to be a fantastic subject, as shot for Vogue Magazine. She's gorgeous, in my opinion, with a cat-like reserve that is at once smug and stifled. And her face has this odd intelligent buttery quality. None of that comes across in the portrait above, but it's fine, I guess.

Which leads me to some of my favorite official White House Presidential portraits from the past:

Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1869. Lincoln got all the best portraits, which is awesome considering that he was a stunningly ugly man. The statue of him sitting regally in the Lincoln Memorial is incredible.

Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleazer Whiteside Earl. I couldn't find a date on this but I'm guessing 1820s/30s. The man was a violent war-monger and colonialist [ETA: I meant "imperialist," as I was thinking about the Trail of Tears, not realizing that "colonialist" would be confusing given the historical context of just having won independence from the British] whose nickname was "Old Hickory." And very popular. This portrait gets that across I think.

Calvin Coolidge by Charles Hopkinson, 1932. The chair he's sitting in is fine furniture, certainly, but the "'Tis A Gift To Be Simple" quality of it, and the raw naked starkness of the rest of the painting, is an interesting choice for a Depression Era portrait. Especially the face turning away from the light and the shadow across the right side of the background. It reminds me of the simplicity and earthiness of portraits in the Napoleonic era when the opulence of the Rococo age was coming under vicious attack, a fitting parallel to the decade following the Gilded Age, Jazz Age, and finally the Wall Street Collapse that occurred in 1929, the last year of Coolidge's presidency.

Dwight D. Eisenhower by J. Anthony Wills.

Gerald Ford by Everett Raymond Kinstler, 1977. This is a nice, compelling portrait with good brushwork. I like it.

Franklin Pierce by George Peter Alexander Healy. 1858. Healy did several Presidential portraits and they're all very good. These people look very "historic," but still like real people who did tedious things.


Harry Truman by Greta Kempton. 1945. I love the sepia tones of this and how they pull a modern man into a 1770s Turner-like background. The clouds give a sense of cannon fire (war) and the sweeping on of history to reveal a bluer sky. Maybe that's not exactly how WWII was but it's a ideal sentiment that Kempton got across here. Truman was a maker of treaties and a supporter of NATO and the United Nations, part of a zeitgeist of catharsis.

Ronald Reagan by Everett Raymond Kinstler (same as Gerald Ford above). 1991. I love this for the silly pink phallus column in the background and candy-colored romanticism. I imagine the landscape behind him to be a bird's eye view of the subdivision from Edward Scissorhands. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Reagan nostalgia.

Probably my favorite Presidential portrait, EVER. John F. Kennedy, painted posthumously in 1970 by Aaron Shikler. I guess he could get away with this classic pose of defeat because the man had just been assassinated. There is so much of his presidency reflected here-- the massive controversy, the acidic vitriol similar to radical anti-Obama stuff, the "golden boy" look of "Camelot," the uneasy times of radical social change, and the relative impotency of his time in office, the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is no background here, just JFK in some sort of other-worldly ether. It's not exactly depressing, though; he looks thoughtful and human in an unprecedented way. The muted sunlight is also evocative of a man in a chapel in front of a stained glass window. It's a contemplative portrait for a stunned nation.

John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy. 1859.

Teddy Roosevelt, by John Singer Sargent, 1903. Sargent was one of the most brilliant portrait artists of all time. Roosevelt was one of the most fantastic portrait subjects, ever. Here you go. I love how Sargent evoked the authoritative, swashbuckling pose of Henry VIII for Roosevelt.

Henry Taft, by Anders Leonard Zorn (a Swedish artist), 1911. This is the portrait of the man chosen by Helen "Nellie" Taft to grant her access to the Oval Office. She had yearned to be in the Oval Office since childhood but couldn't be president because she was a woman; Taft was a well-liked man who only ever wanted to be a local judge. Helen married him and governed from the shadows.

Woodrow Wilson, by S. Seymour Thomas. I couldn't find the date (I could hardly find the painter. Sargent did a more famous painting of Wilson but it's not the official portrait. It's very nice, of course). I've always had a soft spot for President Wilson.

But wait... there's more! First Ladies usually had official portraits painted (though sometimes the official portrait is a photograph) and because the FLOTUS is often seen as the "human side" of the Presidency in the way that wives are referred to as the "better half" (gag), their portraits are much more interesting.


Helen "Nellie" Taft (the woman who ruled through Howard Taft), by Karl Bror Albert Kronstrand, 1910. This is a really weird pose and a totally strange portrait. But interesting.

Eleanor Roosevelt by Douglas Chandler, 1949. This is a bitchin' portrait of a bitchin' lady. Why have one Eleanor when you can have four? I also adore this as a portrait of an accomplished, mature woman, as opposed to some other FLOTUS portraits I haven't included here where a woman in her 50s or 60s looks like she's getting her photo taken at Prom, which I find wildly inappropriate. I love the elegant folds of the dove-grey jacket that subtly evoke a classical Greek toga and elegant drooping wrist holding the pencil just-so, like it is almost immaterial, a natural bridge between her concrete body and abstract thoughts. This has the same ethereal, idealistic qualities that I love about portraits from the 1810's and 20's.

Mamie Eisenhower (official harbinger of the powder-pink bathroom). Guess who painted this? Her husband, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Really.

Margaret Taylor. If you know who painted this and when (I'm guessing 1850s), please let me know. Why is it so hard to find information about an official White House portrait of a FLOTUS? Anyhow I love the brushwork, color and arresting, energetic gaze of Mrs. Taylor. This was a period in history when wealthy women dressed like human curtain rods from the set of Dynasty yet the colors and costuming lend it gravitas. Impressive.

Barbara Bush, by Herbert Elmer Abrams, 1994. This has some nice contrast. The clear crystalline naturalism offsets the stuffiness of Barbara Bush's appearance and makes for an attractive, interesting painting. The best of the Bush portraits.

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, 1804. I usually hate when people use the word "feisty," to describe women but it seems apt for a Quaker and social butterfly who, according to popular legend, rushed to rescue our founding documents from a burning building when the British set our White House ablaze (she actually directed a painting to be hastily removed from the White House as the British advanced, and though a slave of hers published an account saying she also directed slaves to rescue silver, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is likely that a Frenchman named Jean Pierre Sioussat directed the slaves to do so).

Nancy Reagan by Aaron Shikler, 1987. This is formally beautiful but I don't know much about Nancy Reagan herself.

Grace Coolidge, by Howard Chandler Christy. Not sure of the date on this either. But she seems straight out of The Great Gatsby-- not in the sloppy nouveau riche way but that classic understated command of the very wealthy who assume they are able to be casual. "This dress?" I can hear her asking. "Oh, I just wear it on my little strolls!" The portrait is also compositionally fun and beautifully executed.


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