The Eyes

The Eyes

Saturday, January 19, 2013

U.S. Presidential Portraiture

First Lady Dolley Madison may have been the first to recognize the importance of presidential portraiture when she famously saved Gilbert Stuart's full-length painting of George Washington from destruction when fleeing The White House before it was burned by British troops in August 1814. In 1800, Congress allocated $800 to purchase Stuart's portrait of the much-revered first president, but it would be another half a century before funding further acquisition of official portraits for the President’s House.

In 1857, Congress commissioned Chicago artist, George P. A. Healy to paint portraits of several presidents. The portraits, completed from life or Healy’s replicas of earlier life portraits, were of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. Finished by 1859, the portraits were stored in The White House attic, as no funds had been provided for framing them. After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson obtained funding to frame them and hung the portraits in the Cross Hall.

Four years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Congress allocated funds for a competition leaving the selection of the winning portrait to the incoming president, Ulysses S. Grant. He selected a full-length study by William Cogswell. Healy had also entered the competition and when his portrait was not chosen, Robert Todd Lincoln, bought it. His widow bequeathed it to The White House in 1939. Today the Healy portrait hangs in the State Dining Room while the Cogswell portrait has been relegated to storage.

Detail of State Dining Room with Lincoln portrait by George P.A. Healy

Rutherford B. Hayes and Mrs. Hayes took great interest in collecting presidential portraits for The White House, adding paintings of Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison in the 1870s. After he left office, Hayes selected the fashionable American artist Daniel Huntington, who had painted a stunning portrait of Mrs. Hayes years earlier. Huntington was later commissioned for the official portrait of Chester Arthur, the first president to be painted for The White House while in office.

Twentieth century presidential portraits have been painted from life during their administrations by such renowned artists as John Singer Sargent (Theodore Roosevelt). However, no government patronage had been established for portrait acquisition. Presidential families or friends often donated portraits to The White House years after the president’s term of office. It was not until the founding of The White House Historical Association in 1961 and its commitment to fund the acquisition of portraits of both presidents and first ladies for The White House that life portraits of the presidents were consistently commissioned for the collection. Currently, official portraits of the sitting president and the first lady are photographs until they leave The White House.

The nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside The White House, lies at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

George Washington (1796)
Gilbert Stuart
Theodore Roosevelt (1903)
John Singer Sargent

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