Presidential Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery

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PRESIDENTIAL PORTRAITS IN THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
By Victoria Chick

 

ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Artist Victoria Chick discusses Presidential Portraiture as outlines in her article below. Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean.

 

 

If you were lucky enough to have studied American History in high school you may be familiar with an oil portrait by Gilbert Stuart of George Washington. Unless you have visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, you may not know that all presidents have been officially recorded for history in portraits that range in style from traditional Realism to Expressionism to Caricature, or that besides official portraits there are informal ones. Portrait artists have used mediums as diverse as oil paint to clay, to photographic means, including digital manipulation and inkjet printing.

The presidential portraits show personality and give insight into what we may know about the decisions they faced.

Knowing the names of artists engaged over the years to paint, photograph, or otherwise create a portrait of a sitting president can be surprising. All artists of official portraits were highly regarded. Many were women. In the last 50 years, some were famous artists but not known for portraiture. So, if you think of portraits as always just a face depicted as realistically as possible these images may surprise you:

John F. Kennedy, Abstract Expressionist portrait by Elaine DeKooning. DeKooning was largely the choice of the President and his wife. DeKooning worked on many Kennedy portraits trying to capture the vitality she saw. One, 9 feet tall, done during this time, hangs in the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.

William J. Clinton, digitally influenced painting by Chuck Close. Close used a photograph on which he placed a grid corresponding to a grid on his canvas before painting pixel-like areas of color. The painting is 9’ x7’ feet so is best seen as a portrait from a distance.

Lyndon Johnson, a Realistic three-quarter portrait by Peter Hurd done with egg tempera on wood panel. Originally commissioned for the White House Portrait Gallery, Johnson refused to sit for the artist more than one time. So Hurd had to resort to photographs for likeness. Hurd was famous for the details and recorded all of Johnson’s blemishes. When the painting was done, Johnson declared it was the “ugliest thing I’ve ever seen” and the painting was rejected. However, Hurd donated it to the National Portrait Gallery when it opened in 1968. There was a stipulation that it not be exhibited until after Johnson’s death.

Theodore Roosevelt, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, picture above, (in the Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). After rejecting a portrait by another artist who his family said made him look like a “mewing cat”, Roosevelt commissioned Singer who followed him around the White House making sketches while looking for the right lighting and pose. Singer was not getting what he wanted, and Roosevelt’s patience was wearing thin. According to history, Roosevelt suggested Sargent didn’t have a clue as to what the artist wanted. Sargent responded that Roosevelt didn’t know what was needed to pose for a portrait. Whereupon Roosevelt having reached a staircase, put his hand on the balustrade and, whirling around to Sargent said, ”Don’t I?  It was the pose both were looking for and Roosevelt got his “masculine” portrait.

Gerald Ford, a clay caricature with drawing by Patrick Oliphant, a noted political cartoonist.

The National Portrait Gallery has many more portraits than presidential ones covering people of note in all fields, the news, and history makers in every era. In 2018 a law was passed that no federal funds can be used to purchase portraits so, since that time, portraits are paid for by donations.  There are also portraits of Presidents hanging in the White House along with portraits of First Ladies hung according to the preference of whoever is the current White House occupant. The National Portrait Gallery is the best place to see portraits of all the presidents.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com

Cow Trail Art Studio

 

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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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