Stewart D McLaurin
The official White House portraits of President Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled this month in the East Room, an American cultural tradition that has helped build a visual archive of the presidency that spans more than two centuries. These portraits have also played an underappreciated role in forging civic bonds between Americans and their elected leaders.
Perhaps the most famous portrait of the President is the first: Gilbert Stuart’s full-length painting of George Washington, which was purchased by Congress for $800 and later placed in the newly occupied White House.
The artist filled the painting with symbolism, including the new flag’s Stars and Stripes, civilian clothing balanced by a command sword, and even a rainbow.
A History of Portraits
The War of 1812 transformed Washington’s portrait into an icon for the new republic. Hours before the British burned down the White House, First Lady Dolley Madison ordered the portrait saved.
A team of White House staff – including a steward, a gardener and an enslaved man named Paul Jennings – broke up the frame and removed the canvas. It was loaded into a cart and stalked into the Virginia countryside to await the safe return of the elected leaders to the White House.
Before photography, presidential portraits helped early Americans become acquainted with their CEO. They were spread during the election campaign. Abraham Lincoln recognized the political value of presidential pictures in a modernizing society: when the East Room opened to see a painting of Lincoln at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, 7,000 visitors daily thronged to see it.
The making of this painting also illustrates the challenges faced by a presidential portrait painter. To recreate the scene, artist Francis Carpenter lived in the White House for six months, had cabinet members sit for him, had Mathew Brady take photos of the President, and asked Lincoln about his memory of the room that day.
Posing Theodore Roosevelt
Legendary American painter John Singer Sargent had his own challenges painting Theodore Roosevelt. After the President got tired of the artist following him in search of a good pose to capture, Roosevelt said, “The problem with you, Sargent, is that you don’t know what you want.”
“No,” the artist shot back. “The problem, Mr. President, is that you don’t know what a pose means.”
Roosevelt clutched a railing post and said, “I don’t!” At this point, Sargent said, “Don’t move an inch. You have it now.” And that was the portrait he painted for the story of Roosevelt clinging to the banister post.
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Interpretation of Presidents and First Ladies
Artists are not photographers, they are interpreters. Everything from the eyes and eyebrows, to the lines used to draw hair, to the pursed lips and the angle of a bent elbow, is a window into the heart of the subject. Observing the President at Cabinet meetings, Lincoln’s portrait painter noticed how attentively he listened and painted his official portrait after his death with Lincoln’s hand under his chin.
John F. Kennedy’s portraitist Aaron Shikler famously did not portray Kennedy’s eyes, but depicted him looking down with his arms crossed to show the 35th President as a thinker.
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Portraits of First Ladies were not so common until later in the 19th century. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union commissioned a portrait of Lucy Webb Hayes as a gift after banning alcohol in the White House.
One of my favorites is Grace Coolidge in a bright red dress with a dog by her side, capturing her enthusiasm and popularity in Washington society. The portraitist of Eleanor Roosevelt brought out her life and energy by depicting four different faces – and four sets of busy hands.
Depiction of the Obamas
It was an honor to be present when the Obamas’ portraits were unveiled. Since the Kennedy portraits, the White House Historical Association has sponsored the official portraits of our Presidents and First Ladies, and has acquired portraits of others that were missing from the collection. Recent Presidents and First Ladies usually view their artists before they leave office and approve the portraits before their formal presentation to the public, the White House collection, and White House history.
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For the artists, the opportunity to interpret America’s leaders is the work of a lifetime, but remains confidential until unveiling. “You just keep at it and work,” said Robert McCurdy, who painted President Obama’s portrait. “Refine, refine, refine, work it down until you get to this point.” Michelle Obama’s portraitist, Sharon Sprung, told me how she had to turn her painting on the wall every time someone walked into her studio. “I knew it was ready when she started breathing,” she said.
The Obamas enriched this story in 2009 when they hosted a ceremony with the descendants of Jennings, the enslaved man who worked at Madison White House and helped remove George Washington’s iconic painting when the British approached. Nearly two hundred years later, dozens of Mr. Jennings’ descendants toured the White House and were able to inspect the iconic work their ancestor had saved.
And before they left, the Jennings descendants took a moment to stand for their own family photo — in front of the George Washington painting.
Stewart D. McLaurin is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and President of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund the maintenance of White House museum standards and the provision of Publications and programs related to White House history.